Collections: Logistics, How Did They Do It, Part I: The Problem

In this three-part series (I, II, III) we’re going to be bowing to reader demand and taking a close look at the nuts and bolts of maintaining an army in the field.  In our last series, after all, we noted that before gunpowder the ability of a general to affect the course of a battle after it had begun was relatively limited; yet the best generals clearly had substantial ‘value over replacement.’  Often that value is reflected by their bold operational maneuvers – swift marches over difficult terrain to surprise enemies in places they were not expecting.  But if ‘march fast’ is the secret to spectacular victories, what is so hard about ‘march fast?’

That’s what we’re going to look at in this series.  Now we have discussed logistics before, at some lengthI am, after all, the orc logistics guy!  But when we’ve discussed logistics we’ve done so in terms of what an army can plausibly do and how fast it can plausibly move, all in rules of thumb.  As I’ve said before, such rules of thumb are common for military historians (and indeed, militaries as well though modern staff work is much more precise), but many of you have asked me to elaborate on what lies beneath those rules of thumb.  What are the essential tasks the army needs to do as it moves and what demands do they place on it? How do you actually do pre-railroad logistics for an army on the move?

Now I should note that I am going to learn fairly heavily here on my knowledge of the logistics system I know best (the Roman one, particularly in the Middle Republic), though the general rules will be applicable more broadly, as the nutritional logic that drives the system is the same for everyone with an agrarian subsistence system (on nomads with non-agrarian subsistence systems, we discussed them here and also note W. Lee’s recent article on the logistics of grass).  Of course the Roman system was famously effective, so where relevant I will note where Roman capabilities were exceptional and what armies might do if they lacked those capabilities (lost to the Romans, mostly).  Finally, I should note that the basics of these logistics systems hold mostly true through the ancient and medieval worlds and into the pre-modern, until finally disrupted by the development of railway logistics in the 1800s.  Consequently, some of my notes here will be to gunpowder armies (particularly early modern European armies); I’ll be noting where gunpowder changes things, but in terms of logistics those changes are modest.

The plan will be for this series to run in three parts. This first part outlines ‘the problem’ – the actual size of an army with a given number of combatants and the demands that creates. Then next week we’ll look at the regular tasks armies relied on to get the necessary supplies (food, wood and water, mostly) and how different armies handled those tasks, with some implications for what they could do. And then in the last week we’ll look at how armies move, with a particular focus on how a skilled general might move an army fast but also the potential dangers of doing so.

And before we march onward, if you want to support my logistics, you can do so via Patreon. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

(Bibliography note: The tendency on this topic is to write detailed studies of the logistics of specific armies rather than general guides to the concept. Nevertheless, perhaps the best starting point for understanding pre-railroad agrarian logistics is J. Landers, The Field and the Forge: Population, Production and Power in the Pre-Industrial West (2003), which discusses many of the general features of organic economies, including logistics from the ancient world to the pre-industrial gunpowder age. There is also a very handy logistics introduction to K. Chase, Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (2003), though most of the book is, of course, about firearms. For ancient Greek logistics, the best starting point is J.W. Lee, A Greek Army on the March: Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon’s Anabasis (2008), though one must note that the ten thousand were a professional mercenary army and most polis armies do not seem as well organized (a grim statement, as the ten thousand aren’t particularly good at logistics either). For the logistics of Alexander’s campaigns, D.W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (1978) remains, to my knowledge, the standard reference though it is dated and not without problems. For the Roman Army, the two standard books (both quite good) in English are J.P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (1999) and P. Erdkamp, Hunger and the Sword: Warfare and Food Supply in Roman Republican Wars (1998). For early modern armies, G. Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659 (2nd ed. 2004) is a good focused study. On the considerable role of women in all of this, there’s the older B.C. Hacker, “Women and Military Institutions in Early Modern Europe: A Reconnaissance” Signs 6.4 (1981): 643-671, and more recently J.A. Lynn, Women, Armies and Warfare in Early Modern Europe (2008); note also this article by Lynn over at HistoryNet on “Women in War” (2018), as it is openly available.)

The Backpack and the Belly

We’ve introduced this problem before but we should do so again in more depth.  Logistics in modern armies is rather unlike logistics in pre-modern armies; to be exact the break-point here is the development of the railroad.  Once armies can be supplied with railroads, their needs shift substantially.  In particular, modern armies with rail (or later, truck and air) supply can receive massively more supplies over long distance than pre-railroad armies.  That doesn’t make modern logistics trivial, rather armies ‘consumed’ that additional supply by adopting material intensive modes of warfare: machine guns and artillery fire a lot of rounds that need to be shipped from factories to the front while tanks and trucks require a lot of fuel and spare parts.  Basics like food and water were no less necessary but became a smaller share of much, much larger logistics chains that are dominated by ammunition and fuel.

But in the pre-railroad era (note: including the early gunpowder era well into the 1800s) that wasn’t the case.  Soldiers could carry their own weapons and often their own ammunition (which in turn put significant limits on both). For handheld weapons, the difference gunpowder made here was fairly limited, since muskets were fairly slow firing and soldiers had to carry the ammunition they’d have for a battle in any event. The major difference with gunpowder came with artillery (that is, cannon), which needed the cannon, their powder and shot all moved. The result was a substantial expansion of the ‘siege train’ of the army, which did not change the structure of logistics but did place new and heavy demands on it, because the animals and humans moving all of that needed to be fed.1 But overwhelming all of that was food and, if necessary, water.

Adult men need anywhere from 2,000 to 3,200 calories per day in order to support their activity; soldiers marching under heavy load will naturally tend towards the higher end of this range.  Now, these requirements can be fudged; as John Landers notes, soldiers who are underfed do not immediately shut off.  On the other hand, they cannot be ignored for long: no matter the morale an undernourished army will struggle to perform.  Starvation is real and does not care how many reps you could do or how motivated you were when the campaign started (in practice, armies that are not fed sufficiently dissolve away as men desert rather than starve).

Different armies and different cultures will meet that nutritional demand in different ways, but staple grains (wheat, barley, corn, rice) dominate rations in part because they also dominated the diet of the peasantry (being the highest calories-per-acre-farmed-and-labor-added foods) and because they were easy to move and store.  Fruits and vegetables were, by contrast, always subject to local availability, since without refrigeration they were difficult to keep or move; meat at least could be smoked, salted or made into jerky, but its expense made it an optional bonus to the diet rather than the core of it. So the diet here is mostly bread; many armies reliant on wheat and barley agriculture came up with a fairly similar idea here: a dense but simple flour-and-water (and maybe salt) biscuit or cracker which if kept dry could keep for long periods and be easy to move. The Romans called this buccelatum; today we refer to a very similar modern idea as ‘hardtack.’ However, because these biscuits aren’t very tasty, for morale reasons armies try to acquire actual bread where possible.

In practice the combination of calorie demands with calorie-dense grain-based foods is going to mean that rations tend to cluster in terms of weight, even from different armies. Spartan rations on Sphacteria were 2 choenikes of barley alphita (a course barley flour) per man per day (Thuc. 4.16.1) which comes out to roughly 1.4kg; Spartan grain contributions to the syssitia (Plut. Lyc. 12.2) were 1 medimnos of barley alphita per month, which comes out to almost exactly 1kg per day (but supplemented with meat and such).2 Both Roth and Erdkamp (op. cit. for both) try to calculate the weight of Roman rations based on reported grain rations and interpolations for other foodstuffs; Roth suggests a range of 1.1-1.327kg (of which .85kg was grain or bread), while Erdkamp simply notes that they must have been somewhat more than the .85kg grain ration minimum.3 The Army of Flanders was given pan de munición (‘munition’ or ‘ration’ bread) made of a mix of wheat and rye in loaves of standard size; the absolute minimum ration was 1.5lbs (.68kg) per day (Parker, op. cit. 136), somewhat less than the more logistically capable (as we’ll see) Roman legions, but in the ballpark, especially when we remember that soldiers in the Army of Flanders often supplemented that with purchased or pillaged food. Daily U.S. Army rations during the American Civil War were around 3lbs (1.36kg; statistic via Engels (op. cit.) who inexplicably thinks this is a useful reference for Macedonian rations), but some of the things included (particularly the 1.6oz of coffee) were hardly minimum necessities; the United States much like the Romans has a well-earned reputation for better than average rations, though this is admittedly a low bar.

So we can see a pretty tight grouping here around 1kg, especially when we account for some of these ration-packages being supplemented by irregular but meaningful amounts of other foods (especially in the case of the Army of Flanders, where we know this happened). There is some wiggle room here, of course; marching rations like hardtack are going to be lighter per-day than raw grains or good bread (or other, even tastier foods). But once meat, vegetables and fruits – and the diet must be at least sometimes supplemented with non-grain foods for nutritional reasons – are accounted for, you can see how the rule of thumb around 3lbs or 1.36kg forms out of the evidence. Soldiers also need around 3 liters of water (which is 3kg, God bless the metric system) per day but we are going to operate on the hopeful assumption that water is generally available on the route of our march. If it isn’t our daily load jumps from 1.36kg to 4.36kg and our operational range collapses into basically nothing; in practice this meant that if local water wasn’t available an army simply couldn’t go there.4

Marching loads vary by army and period but generally within a range of 40 to 55kg or so (60 at the absolute upper-end).  As you may well imagine, convincing soldiers to carry heavier loads demands a greater degree of discipline and command control, so while a general may well want to push soldier’s marching load up, the soldiers will want to push it down (and of course overloading soldiers is going to eventually have a negative impact on marching speed and movement capabilities).  But you may well be thinking that 40-55kg (which is 90-120lbs or so) sounds more than ample – that’s a lot of food!

Except of course they need to carry everything and weapons, armor and (for gunpowder armies) shot are heavy.  Roman soldiers were and are famous for having marched heavy, carrying as much of their equipment and supplies as possible in their packs, which the Romans called the sarcina (we’ll see why this could improve an army’s capabilities).  This practice is often attributed to Gaius Marius in the last decade of the second century (Plut. Marius 13.1) but care is necessary as this sort of ‘reform’ was a trope of Roman generalship and is used of even earlier generals than Marius (e.g. Plut. Mor. 201C on Scipio Aemilianus).  Various estimates for the marching load of Roman troops exist but the best is probably Marcus Junkelmann’s physical reconstruction (in Die Legionen des Augustus (1986); highly recommended if you can read German; alas for the lack of an English translation!) which recreated all of the Roman kit and measured a marching load of 54.8kg (120.8lbs), with ~43 of the 54.8kg reserved for weapons, armor, entrenching kit and personal equipment, leaving just 11.8kg for food (about ten days worth).  Other estimates are somewhat less, but never much less than 40kg for a Roman soldier’s equipment before rations, leaving precious little weight in which to fit a lot of food.

Via Wikipedia, Roman soldiers from the Column of Trajan (c. 113) marching with their sarcinae suspended from forked staves called furca.

The same exercise can be run for almost any kind of infantryman: while their load is often heavy, after one accounts for weapons, armor and equipment (and for later armies, powder and shot) there is typically little space left for rations, usually amounting to not more than a week or two (ten days is a normal rule of thumb).  Since the army obviously has more than two weeks of work to do (and remember it needs to be able to march back to wherever it started at the end), it is going to need to get a lot more food.  And this leads us to:

The Problem

The problem in a nutshell is that anything available to these armies prior to the advent of the railroad that can carry food, also eats food (except for boats, but rivers and coastlines may well not go where you want to go).  We may call this problem the ‘tyranny of the wagon equation’ as a number of readers have noticed the similarity to the tyranny of the rocket equation.

The first option is, of course, to just bring more people carrying food. A porter (that is a human non-combatant) can carry more supplies because they don’t have their own arms and armor, but is eating a bit more than a kilogram of it a day, just like your soldier, and also may have to carry a bunch of personal possessions (or in many armies, the superfluous personal possessions of the soldier).  A pack-mule can carry a fair bit more, around 130kg (figure via Landers, op. cit.).  But mules have to eat and they have to eat quite a bit, around 2.25kg of barley per day in addition to grass or hay, which again one hopes is largely available roadside (if it isn’t, you need another 4.5kg of hay or straw per day to feed the mule, in addition to the barley).  So in the best case, the mule eats its entire load in 57 days; worst case it does so in just 20 days. The good news with mules (which explains their use over wagons in many cases) is that they can handle moderately rough terrain, which wagons cannot. Porters and pack animals thus offer only a limited increase in operational range; the ratio of food carried to food eaten is just too low, not useless, but limited.

Wagons are more promising.  A big wagon pulled by two horses can carry perhaps a ton (1000kg) at maximum (in practice many medieval wagons capped out well below this and were pulled by four horses), but now we have two horses and a driver to consider.5   Now the small native ponies of the Steppe can subsist entirely off of grass, but the sort of horses available in the agrarian world are bred too big and strong to eat entirely grass. Their nutrition requirements are too high and so they require feed, at least some 4.5kg of it per day assuming local grass is available along with time to let the horses graze it (during which the wagon is, of course, stopped).  The Romans seem to have allocated around 7kg of barley per day per cavalryman for their cavalry, though its possible this also provided for a servant or groom for the cavalryman.  So under best conditions the two horses and one driver are going to eat about 10kg out of the wagon each day (a figure one may safely double if there is no grazing available), giving the wagon on its own at 100 days of range.

From the British Museum an etching (1591) of a pike formation on the move, with supplies and in tow, including wagons, pack mules as well as cows and sheep being moved ‘on the hoof.’ I am unsure if the presence of the elephant at right means we should understand this scene to take place in India and alas the museum description offers no clues.

Which sounds great except remember that the goal here isn’t to deliver wagons, but to deliver an army.  Factoring in the food demands of the soldiers, the number of wagons quickly spirals out of control.  Rather than reinvent the wheel here, I’ll note that K. Chase (op. cit.) ran these numbers assuming two-horse 1400lb wagons and found that assuming the army acquired no local food (but could get grass for the horses), for a group of thirty infantryman the first wagon doubles their range from 120 to 240 miles (less really, horses cannot be worked so many days consecutively).  Doubling again to around 400 (accounting for horse rest time) requires not two but six wagons for thirty men.  To double the range again would require more wagons than men.  And that assumes ample water and grazing; remove either and these figures collapse. So there are sharp limits to how much extra range an army can get by adding carrying capacity; in practice about a month and a half’s logistics buffer is the maximum that’s possible and even doing that is expensive.

From the British Museum, a print (1855) showing French cavalry alongside a wagon along with a vivandière with baskets of provisions.

Adding animals, especially draft animals pulling wagons, have other impacts too, particularly to speed and freedom to maneuver.  Pack mules may be taken off roads, but in order to keep up with marching infantry wagons need good roads.  Meanwhile wagons are prone to breakdowns and most importantly eat up a lot of road space which is also a key limiter to how fast an army can move.  The more wagons you add, the slower the army gets. We’ll run through this problem – moving the army – later in this series. Of course that isn’t to say the army won’t use wagons and pack mules – it absolutely will because it needs to carry lots of things, including spare food. Instead the point is the army cannot solely rely on the food it carries.

The tyranny of the wagon equation is thus inescapable: an army that plans to be in the field for more than just a few days cannot bring all of the food it needs with it; it must find most of its food locally. This is the significant of the famous but apocryphal quip (attributed to both Napoleon and Frederick the Great but probably said by neither) that ‘an army marches on its stomach.’  The solution to that problem is foraging, which we’ll come to a bit later, but before we go there we need to talk about the rest of the army.  And you may well be asking, ‘the rest of the army?  We have our animals, we have our soldiers, who is left?’

The Rest of the Army

It is worth keeping in mind that an army of 10,000 or 20,000 men was, by ancient or medieval standards, a mid-sized town or city moving across the landscape.  Just as towns and cities created demand for goods that shaped life around them, so did armies (although they’d have to stay put to create new patterns of agriculture, though armies that did stay put did create new patterns of agriculture, e.g. the Roman limes). Thousands of soldiers demand all sorts of services and often have the money to pay for them and that’s in addition to what the army as an army needs. That in turn is going to mean that the army is followed by a host of non-combatants, be they attached to the soldiers, looking to turn a profit, or compelled to be there.

We can start with sutlers, merchants buying or selling from the soldiers themselves (the Romans called these fellows lixae, but also called other non-soldiers in the camp lixae as well, see Roth (2012), 93-4; they also call them mercatores or negotiatores, merchants).  Sutlers could be dealing in a wide array of goods.  Even for armies where ration distribution was regular (e.g. the Roman army), sutlers might offer for sale tastier and fancier rations: meat, better alcohol and so on.  They might also sell clothing and other goods to soldiers, even military equipment: finding ‘custom’ weapons and armor in the archaeology of military forts and camps is not uncommon.  For less regularly rationed armies, sutlers might act as a supplement to irregular systems of food and pay, providing credit to soldiers who purchased rations to make up for logistics shortfalls, to collect when those soldiers were paid.  By way of example, the regulations of the Army of Flanders issued in 1596 allowed for three sutlers per 200-man company of troops (Parker, op. cit.), but the actual number was often much higher and of course those sutlers might also have their own assistants, porters, wagons and so on which moved with the army’s camp. Women who performed this role in the modern period are often referred to by the French vivandière.

Via Wikipedia, a painting of a vivandière with soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars by Adrian Moreau (1843-1906). By this point historically, the greater degree of logistics centralization had allowed European generals to mostly exclude women from the camp (back right), so this vivandière operates an impromptu eatery on the roadside.

For some armies there would have been an additional class of sutlers: slave dealers.  Enslaved captives were a major component of loot in ancient warfare and Mediterranean military operations into and through the Middle Ages.  Armies would abduct locals caught in hostile lands they moved through or enemies captured in battles or sieges; naturally generals did not want to have to manage these poor folks in the long term and so it was convenient if slave-dealer ‘wholesalers’ were present with the army to quickly buy the large numbers of enslaved persons the army might generate (and then handle their transport – which is to say traffic them – to market).  In Roman armies this was a regularized process, overseen by the quaestor (an elected treasury official who handled the army’s finances) assigned to each army, who conducted regular auctions in the camp.  That of course means that these slave dealers are not only following the army, but are doing so with the necessary apparatus to transport hundreds or even thousands of captives (guards, wagons, porters, etc.).

And then there is the general category of ‘camp follower,’ which covers a wide range of individuals (mostly women) who might move with the camp.  The same 1596 regulations that provided for just three sutlers per 200-man Spanish company also provided that there could be three femmes publiques (prostitutes), another ‘maximum’ which must often have been exceeded.  But prostitutes were not the only women who might be with an army as it moved; indeed the very same regulations specify that, for propriety’s sake, the femmes publiques would have to work under the ‘disguise of being washerwomen or something similar’ which of course implies a population of actual washerwomen and such who also moved with the army. Depending on training and social norms, soldiers may or may not have been expected to mend their own clothes or cook their own food.  Soldiers might also have wives or girlfriends with them (who might in turn have those soldier’s children with them); this was more common with professional long-service armies where the army was home, but must have happened with all armies to one degree or another. Roman soldiers in the imperial period were formally, legally forbidden from marrying, but the evidence for ‘soldier’s families’ in the permanent forts and camps of the Roman Empire is overwhelming.

Via Wikipedia, the Landsknecht with his Wife, etching by Daniel Hopfer (c. 1470-1536) showing a professional infantryman of the period, a Landsknecht, on campaign with his wife. Women are often omitted from military artwork of this period but we know from reports from the period that they would have been extremely common.

The tasks women attached to these armies have have performed varied by gender norms and the organization of the logistics system. Early modern gunpowder armies represent some of the broadest range of activities and some of the armies that most relied on women in the camp to do the essential work of maintaining the camp; John Lynn (op. cit., 118-163) refers to the soldiers and their women (a mix of wives, girlfriends and unattached women) collectively as ‘the campaign community’ and it is an apt label when thinking about the army on the march.6 As Lynn documents, women in the camp washed and mended clothes, nursed the sick and cooked meals, all tasks that were considered at the time inappropriate for men. Those same women might also be engaged in small crafts or in small-scale trade (that is, they might also be sutlers). Finally, as Lynn notes, women who were managing food and clothing seem often to have become logistics managers for their soldiers, guarding moveable property during battles and participating in pillaging in order to scrounge enough food and loot for they and their men to survive. I want to stress that for armies that had large numbers of women in the camp, it was because they were essential to the continued function of the army.

From the British Museum, a satirical print (c. 1828) showing a vivandière working in a French military camp, tending to a wounded soldier while also offering another soldier a glass of wine.

And finally, you have the general category of ‘servants.’  The range of individuals captured by this label is vast.  Officers and high status figures often brought either their hired servants or enslaved workers with them.  Captains in the aforementioned Army of Flanders seem generally to have had at least four of five servants (called mozos) with them, for instance; higher officers more.  But it wasn’t just officers who did this.  Indeed, the average company in the Army of Flanders, Parker notes, would have had 20-30 individual soldiers who also had mozos with them; one force of 5,300 Spanish veterans leaving Flanders brought 2,000 such mozos as they left (Parker, op. cit. 151).

Looking at the ancient world, many – possibly most – Greek hoplites in citizen armies seem to have very often brought enslaved servants with them to carry their arms and armor; such enslaved servants are a regular feature of their armies in the sources.  The Romans called these enslaved servants in their armies calones; it was a common trope of good generalship to sharply restrict their number, often with limited success.  At Arausio we are told there were half as many servants (calonum et lixarum) as soldiers (Liv. Per. 67, on this note Roth (2013), 105), though excessive numbers of calones et lixae was a standard marker of bad general and the Romans did lose badly at Arausio so we ought to take those figures with a grain of salt, as Livy (and his sources) may just be communicating that the generals there were bad. That said, the notion that a very badly led army might have as many non-combatants following it as soldiers is a common one in the ancient sources. And while Roman armies were considered notable in the ancient world for how few camp servants they relied on and thus how much labor and portage was instead done by the soldiers, getting Roman aristocrats to leave their vast enslaved household staff at home was notoriously difficult (e.g. Ps.Caes. BAfr. 54; Dio Cass. 50.11.6). Much like the early modern ‘campaign community,’ our sources frequently treat these calones as part of the army they belonged to, even though they were not soldiers.

Kick Them Out!

All of this contributes to the ‘tooth to tail’ ratio of the army on the move, which is to say the ratio of effective combat troops to the folks who are just supporting the army.  Now I should note (and this will come up a bit later), many of these non-soldiers in the camp might be armed (but most certainly are not always or even generally so), particularly camp servants and camp wives.  They might thus participate in various ways both in the defense of the camp and in foraging operations.  But they do not contribute to the offensive power of the army, so they are squarely in the ‘tail’ of the army.

Given the tyranny of the wagon equation it is easy to see the problem.  Each camp servant, sutler, family member and so on that the army adds is another mouth that had to be fed somehow through the army’s logistics system (even if they are, for instance, not fed directly by the army but rather through soldier’s pay or rations).  And, as we’ll get to, the larger the army train is (including these folks) the slower it moves, so non-combatants not only increase the logistics demand on the army but also slow it down.  In essence an army overburdened with non-combatants experiences all of the problems of a big army without any of the combat power benefits of a big army.

And as a reminder, big armies have a lot of problems!  They’re harder to coordinate, they move much slower, they are harder to secure on the march (because the line of march is longer), they’re more expensive and eat more food.  And because they eat more food, as we’ll see as we move forward, there are places they cannot go: routes available to a small, lean army which cannot support a large one.

Naturally then, commanders try to restrict the number of non-combatants with the army.  The basic motions of doing this occur so frequently in the Roman sources they are almost rote: generals demand soldiers carry all of their equipment, restrict rations to essentials, limit carried goods and equipment down to the bare minimum (often with the standard ‘good general’ first ostentatiously disposing of his own bits of private property) and then banish women, slaves and most of the merchants from the camp, allowing only those who remain to conduct business directly with the army command (in Roman sources, through the quaestor alone).7  Now we should be cautious with these reports: these are literary tropes meant to signify a broad sense of ‘good generalship.’  At the same time, actually doing this would have had an effect and it seems safe to suppose many Roman generals did this, though of course the fact that Roman generals have to keep doing this suggests the intransigence of the problem.

Why don’t all generals do this?  In practice the reasons fit under two big headings.  The first big heading is that, well, the soldiers don’t want the general to do that, so doing so damages morale.  They like having all of these folks around (especially, one assumes, their families for professionals who have no other home to go back to).  And that is not only true of the regular soldiers but also of the officers, whose rank often entitles them to bring more attendants of various kinds than regular soldiers; they are jealous of that privilege of rank.  So there is a tug-of-war between the interest of the general in having a lean, effective army and the interests of everyone else in creature comforts on campaign.  The second big heading is logistics: if these non-combatants are providing essential services to the army (like markets for food or replacement clothes or cooking) and you kick them out, the army ceases to function and the general will not look very clever for his fastidiousness.

Consequently the ability of generals to tamp down on this sort of thing tends to come down to a mix of their own personal willingness to indulge but also the leverage their soldiers and officers have.  In early modern gunpowder armies (like the Army of Flanders, for instance), the soldiers are at best weakly attached to the state; they are mercenaries with highly valuable skills who could as easily fight for someone else or just mutiny.  They are also long-service professionals who, if they have families, are bringing those with them.  Moreover, and we’ll come back to this, many of those camp attendants are filling vital logistical roles that the army’s primitive logistics apparatus is simply incapable of doing.  In that context, generals have little leverage to force those creature comforts out of the camp and so regulations on the permissible number of attendants, prostitutes, merchants and so on were just ignored.

Over the course of the late 1600s and 1700s, European states and monarchs worked to fix these problem, steadily centralizing supply, pay, command and logistics into national bureaucracies. That in turn allowed for more and more non-combatants, especially the women of the campaign community, to be pushed out of the camp and excluded from the army as their logistical functions were subsumed by these new bureaucracies (there is a good basic introduction to these processes in Lee, Waging War, 301-315). This in turn leads to the leaner field armies of the 1800s, although they are by no means devoid of women following the army doing essential services.

Via the Library of Congress, a photograph from 1862 showing a woman along with a soldier (likely her husband) and three children in the camp of the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, encamped outside of Washington, D.C..

Or to take another negative example, a polis hoplite army consisted of most – if not essentially all – of the politically influential, voting citizens.  The (often elected) general’s ability to enforce any kind of uncomfortable discipline on such armies was extremely limited because the entire voting body was there; what the hoplites wanted (collectively), they largely got.  Consequently, hoplite armies seem generally to have had lots of non-combat attendants, despite generally operating at very limited range and for only limited parts of the year.

On the other hand, you have Roman armies: the soldiers are citizens, but represent only a small slice of the total voting body.  Their generals as either consuls (and thus members of the Senate) or legates of the emperor (also members of the Senate) are effectively insulated from a fair bit of that political pushback, while Roman law and custom give generals wide latitude to discipline their soldiers (military service was, for instance, the only context in which a citizen could lawfully be beaten by a magistrate or his subordinates).  Meanwhile as we’ll see, the Roman logistics system is well developed, with the legion able to handle most of the required tasks internally, making it feasible from both a logistics and a political standpoint to simply kick all of the non-combatants out.  And so Roman generals do, at least some of the time – though doing so could cause a crisis of morale.  Remember, the soldiers like having these folks around.


So now we have our entire ‘campaign community’ of men, women and animals. And so it might be worth doing some quick calculations to close out this section to get a sense now of exactly what a community of this size is going to require. For a general sense of scale, we’ll consider the demands of a standard Roman army of the Middle Republic: two legions plus matching allied detachments, totaling around 19,200 soldiers (16,800 infantry, 2,400 cavalry).8

Let’s deal with animals next. Each contubernium (‘tent group’) of 6 soldiers likely had its own mule (for reasons we’ll get to later), so that’s 3,200 mules for the army, plus some additional number for the siege train and any army supplies; perhaps around 5,000 total (see Roth, op. cit. on this). On top of this we have horses for the cavalry; this will be rather more than 2,400 since spare horses will have been a necessity on campaign. Judging by Roman barley rations for cavalrymen (presumably intended to feed the horse) it seems a good guess that each cavalryman had one spare; for later medieval armies the number of spares would be substantially higher (at least three per rider). But for our lean army of Romans, that’s just 4,800 horses. An early modern army might require quite a few less mules (replacing them with wagons), but at the same time it is also probably hauling both field artillery and siege guns which demand a tremendous number of draft animals (mostly horses). My sense is that in the end this tends to leave the early modern army needing more animals overall.

Next the non-combatants. The mules will need drivers9 and the cavalrymen likely also have grooms to handle their horses, which suggests something like 3,400 calones as an absolute minimum simply to handle the animals. Roth (op. cit., 114) figures 1 non-combatant per four combatants in a Roman army, while Erdkamp (op. cit. 42) figures 1:5. Those figures would include not merely enslaved calones but also sutlers, slave-dealers, and women in the campaign community. Taking the lower estimate we might then figure something like 4,000 non-combatants for a ‘lean’ Roman army, with many armies being more loaded up on non-combatants than even this. And while estimating the number of non-combatants for Roman armies is tricky, we actually have some figures for pre-modern armies to give a reference. Parker (op. cit. 252) notes units of the Army of Flanders (between 1577 and 1620) as high as 53% non-combatants, including women in the campaign community; one Walloon tercio in 1629 was 28% camp women on the march. It is tempting to compare these but caution is necessary here – both Roth’s and Erdkamp’s estimates are heavily informed by more modern armies so the argument would be circular: the estimates for the Romans look like later armies because later armies were used to calibrate estimates for the Romans.

That gives us an army now of 19,200 soldiers, 4,000 non-combatants, 5,000 mules and 4,800 horses. Roman rations were pretty ample and it seems likely that many of the calones did not eat so well but the ranges are fairly narrow; we can work with an average 1.25kg daily ration per person normally, with the absolute minimum being the 0.83kg daily grain ration following Polybius (Plb. 6.39.12-14, on this note Erdkamp op. cit. 33-42) if the army was short on supplies or needed to move fast eating only those buccelatum biscuits. That’s a normal consumption of 29,000kg per day for the humans, with the minimum restricted diet of 19,256kg for short periods. Then we need about 2.25kg of feed for each mule and about 4.5kg of feed for each horse (we’re assuming grazing and water are easily available), which adds up to 11,250kg for the mules and 21,600kg for the horses.

And at last we now have the scale of our problem: our lean army of 19,200 fighting men consumes an astounding 61,850kg (68.18 US tons) of food daily. It also consumes staggering amounts of water and firewood (we’ll talk about foraging these later). In order to move this army or sustain it in place it is thus necessary to ensure a massive and relatively continuous supply of food to the army. Failure to do that will result in the army falling apart long before it comes anywhere close to the enemy.

And that’s where we’re going to go next week: how does the army get the food it needs and then distribute it to the soldiers, non-combatants and animals.

  1. At the same time, armies tend to be expanding in Europe in this period, which also strains logistics.
  2. Calorie values for ground alphita are tricky, for reasons discussed in Foxhall and Forbes, “Sitometria” Chiron 12 (1982), but Spartan rations are certainly on the high calorie side, leading in some cases to suggestions that the Spartiates rations may have also covered enslaved helot servants. Alternately, it may just be a product of the Spartiates all being elites, who ate like elites and not like common soldiers. It is also possible, as Foxhall and Forbes note, that ancient alphita may have ended up with a lower proportion of the edible parts of the barley seed, leading to a lower calorie value per unit-weight than what they estimate based on modern computations using efficient, mechanical grinders.
  3. To be clear, we know with some certainty that Roman rations were supplemented, but not by how much. If you read much older scholarship, you will find the notion that Roman soldier’s diet lacked regular meat; both Erdkamp and Roth reject this view decisively and for good reason.
  4. I may return to the logistics of water later, but some range can be extended here by taking advantage of the fact that pack animals, while they need a lot of water per day over a long period, can be marched short periods with basically no water and still function, whereas water deprived humans die very quickly. Consequently an army can do a low-water ‘lunge’ over short distances by loading its pack animals with water, not watering them, having the soldiers drink the water and then abandoning the pack animals as they die (the water they carried having been consumed). This is, to say it least, a very expensive thing to do – animals are not cheap! – but there is some evidence the Romans did this, on this see G. Moss, “Watering the Roman Legion” M.A. Thesis, UNC Chapel Hill (2015).
  5. For the Romans, wagons of these sort were unavailable. Roman carts were typically two-wheelers (lacking an independently turning front axle) which limited the weight they could carry by quite a lot. Consequently, the Romans only used carts for moving the siege train and all other logistics was done with pack animals, almost always mules.
  6. And of course many of those women had children by their soldiers, who would also be moving with the camp.
  7. Moralizing examples in the sources of generals either doing this or failing to do this are numerous. E.g. for the Romans Plut. Mor. 201C; Plut. Mar. 13.1; App. Hisp. 14.85; Sall. Iug. 44.5-45.2; Tac. Hist. 2.88; Hdn. 4.7.4-6.
  8. That’s two legions of Roman citizens, each with 4,200 infantry (1,200 velites, hastati and principes each, plus 600 triarii) and 300 equites, plus two alae of socii (‘wings of allies’), each with roughly the same number (4,200) of infantry but three times the cavalry (so 900 each), Plb. 6.21.7-9, 6.25-26.
  9. One muleteer can manage around five mules though.

311 thoughts on “Collections: Logistics, How Did They Do It, Part I: The Problem

  1. i have always found it interesting that the rocket equation has some similarity to logistical organization.. the distance and rate of travel directly correlates to your size, your supplies and the rate at which you consume those supplies.. and the more you try to add supplies, the larger the thing you are moving, and the faster you use those supplies. eventually hitting a point where further increases provide no benefit, or detriment.

    1. only you don;t really have the option of ejecting half your unit whenever you start getting low in order to extend the range of what is left. i mean sure, you *could* but unlike a rocket stage the troops (or camp followers) involved are more likely to fight back, and unlike a rocket it would reduce how effective the smaller continuing unit would be at its job.

      1. I wonder if camp followers could be “jettisoned” at certain key points on the army’s march. The first point would be when they get ready to move out. I’d expect there to be plenty of non-military personnel at the army’s home base, but once they get ready to march the general would take inventory and order all “non-essential” personnel to stay behind. Another key point would be entering enemy territory. If they’re planning a siege or occupation, that would justify more noncombat people, but if army was expecting to, fight, pillage, then go home, that’s an excuse for them to travel light.

        I’m also wondering, just how responsible were pre-modern armies for their camp followers? With sutlers especially, I would expect the average pre-modern general to say, “You can come, but you have to bring your own supplies and keep up. We’re not going to wait for you, and once we enter hostile territory, you follow at your own risk.” I’d think this would help get around any noncombatant personnel rules.

        1. I think the practical reality is that you’re going to be feeding the followers whether you are officially responsible for them or not, so you’d better plan for it in your logistics. A sutler or prostitute is getting paid by the soldiers, either in food directly or in coin, and I’d presume a common way of turning coin into food is by buying rations from soldiers. So if you’re only bringing enough food for your soldiers, you’re going to find yourself running out of food faster than you expected. Let alone followers that are the families of soldiers, which definitely are going to get fed out of soldier rations whether you want them to or not.

        2. If using space travel as an analogy, the camp followers are more like a service module than a booster stage, they are supplying essential services that the payload/army needs almost all the time, instead of just being used to get an army to its location and not being useful past that point. So they could be separated, but only for what it described here: staying in camp while an army does something else, separating for a few days or such, staying near a river while an army moves around, things like that.

          What you could in theory get rid of are wagons and animals, either send them back when not needed or killing them/breaking them down. Sending empty wagons and animals back makes sense if they won’t be attacked, killing them and breaking down wagons is theoretically possible but would waste a lot of animals and wagons (kind of like single use rockets being really expensive…huh,, this is a good analogy.). Big issue here is an army doesn’t know how long it will be out doing things, so all this couldn’t be calculated exactly. And, as said, sending back wagons and animals without enough guards might just get them all captured if in hostile territory.

          I imagine our blog writer will mention some more of how this kind of thing was done. And sending back wagons doesn’t really work if you are collecting supplies continuously from an area anyway.

          1. Spoiler for a future post: one of the pictures includes flocks of sheep and cattle being herded along with the army. I also understand that many societies in classical antiquity had religious traditions where generals would sacrifice an animal before any decision, probably several per day.

            Also note that a big part of the difficulty here is the assumption that the army is relentlessly advancing at substantially the same speed as wagons can move at. If instead the army either settles down to a siege, or runs circles in the operational area but the initial part of the supply line stays the same (e.g. delivering to a fortified, advanced supply dump) then the problem is much easier; food that is sitting in the “home” supply dump is not being moved.

          2. Moving food ‘on the hoof’ is a possible logistics solution, but it imposes its own difficulties because you’d need a very large herd.

            Which is why meat and dairy are only small supplements to the grain-based diet.

          3. Also you are still burning your rations since the cattle will be skinnier the more you walk them and the less they can graze.

            You could eat well on a cattle drive because as soon as he cleaned up from breakfast, the cook would charge off in the chunk wagon to the next camp site, and spend hours cooking for the herds to arrive. The cowboys were moving the cows as slowly as was feasible to increase grazing.

        3. Jettisoning bits of your party as you went is commonplace in exploration, especially polar exploration – look at Scott, sending back one sledge team after another as their payloads were eaten up, finally ending up with just one team of five (should have been four!) for the Pole. Or Amundsen, killing his dogs as he went and feeding them to each other. Less so perhaps for armies, because, well, where are you going to leave them, and how are they going to survive while they wait for you? Your frontier towns aren’t going to have spare accommodation for a few thousand useless mouths…

          1. Except that armies jettison tons of stuff anything that’s empty or broken is probably getting left behind: bottles, jars, casks especially. But also any bits of clothing that were too worn or ruined to repair. If a wagon broke down and there wasn’t enough time to repair it, I’m sure they would redistribute its load and potentially put meat back on the menu — eat the draught animals.

        4. I suspect that a lot of the more “mercantile” camp followers like the sutlers would leave an army camp if it became obvious that the folks they were following were losing — is that banner approaching you not one of the banners you recognize from your weeks of traveling with this army? Then get out of there! But the soldiers’ families likely don’t have anywhere to go. If ejected they might simply follow at a longer distance and try to sneak back into camp, aided by their husbands and family still with the army.

          1. There are absolutely examples of camp followers starting out in one army and then ending up in one on the opposite side, voluntarily or not. It wasn’t even entirely unusual for *soldiers* either, during the 30-years war it was pretty common practice for surrendering soldiers to just be spread out and used to fill out gaps in your own army due to losses, etc. (officers was a different matter of course, but common soldiery was to at least some extent interchangeable as far as the army was concerned)

      2. You can do something like that if you really have to.

        You establish a “supply depot”, run wagons to the supply depot and then run a smaller number of wagons from the depot to the army. That is like rocket staging.

        I can think of a few examples of a modern army doing this, in particular this was a standard approach to running fuel in North Africa during WWII – when the trucks carrying the fuel routinely used up 80% or more of the fuel landed at the ports for the Axis forces.

        I’m not aware of a comparable approach being used by any pre-railroad army, though

        1. That’s less analogous to staging and more analogous to… well, depots. Keeping a fuel depot in LEO or in farther orbits is a commonly-bandied-about idea, letting you send the cheap bulk cargo that can withstand long transfers without life support by more efficient means, and use the resulting depots to support more delicate and time-sensitive people and electronics.

        2. The Operation Black Buck bombing flights are a good extreme example of this. Eleven tanker planes needed for a single bomber to fly from Ascension to Falkland and back. Those tankers refueling the bomber and each other multitudes of times, the bomber alone receiving 8 refuels. The Wikipedia article has a nice drawing of the flight logistics.

        3. I do wonder to what extent all the Ptolemaic elephant hunting was in part to prepare a network of logistics stations for the Ptolemies to project power further up the Red Sea and Nile.

    2. I’m not sure it’s interesting, per se. Those equations are just a good way to quantify one way that supports need to be supported by more supports. Rocket fuel needs rocket fuel to reach the height it’s burned at, pack mules need food to get food where it’s needed, oil tankers need oil to transport oil across the ocean, etc. Similar problems can be modeled similarly, even if the systems those problems afflict are different.

      The trick is, of course, recognizing how differences in those systems can change the solutions. For instance, while methods of transporting food that don’t eat food are readily available in certain geographic regions, options for transporting rocket fuel that don’t rely on rocket fuel are much more limited. (There are more options once we get the fuel to space—both in terms of extremely efficient rockets and in terms of non-rocket propulsion—but non-rocket methods to get into orbit are at this stage pure theory.)

    3. Foraging as Bussard ramjets, allowing fuel collection.

      Except later analysis indicates Bussard rockets would be better brakes than jets.

      Which kind of works anyway: foraging may extend your army’s range but won’t make it faster…

  2. “(in practice, armies that are not fed sufficiently dissolve away as men desert rather than starve).”

    What does this look like in practice? I imagine it’s very bad for the local population. I assume that most of the men would seek to travel back home, but many would just become roving bandits?

    1. Although the term “brigand” is applied to banditry in general, it frequently refers to former soldiers or mercenaries who continue to ‘forage’ without any pretense of serving a larger military purpose.

    2. Probably most of them, yes.

      I do note that the 30-years war shows a few examples of the reverse: Desertion rates spiking when the army does uncommonly well, for a rather simple reason: Most soldiers were in it for the money, and if they were lucky enough to loot enough valuables to set themselves up for life, then why stick around?

  3. All the logistics look very much like unsolvable issue, you can see the comanders aren’t happy about the state of things but can’t do anything about it.
    Reading, let’s say Grimmelshausen, he doesn’t seem to think it’s perfectly fine to take what you want from the peasants and rape everything that moves since you’re already there, but can’t really tell what are the soldiers supposed to do.

  4. Did you ever consider to have the copyright for “Orc logistics guy”?
    That would be a hell of a brand!

  5. I enjoy these kinds of posts. This is partly because when I read the private correspondence of pre-modern generals, I tend to see that the good ones were *obsessed* with this kind of stuff. People like Napoleon & Wellington could do exactly this kind of math all day long – this (plus bickering subordinates) is what their days were actually filled with, rather than battle tactics and ‘could a lancer beat a hussar’. Was road X good enough to take a convoy of 100 wagons? How many oxen could be spared for the march to town Y? Was there a good supply of mules to be had in region Z? We tend to have less of this kind of correspondence from classical times, but I strongly suspect people like Pompey and Caesar were good at this stuff as well, judging by the actual mobility they achieved.

    1. My impression has always been that Caesar often operated somewhat by the seat of his pants, moving quickly but overextending, tending towards the kind of short-distance “lunge” that Bret mentions, and banking that his troop quality and tactical superiority would bail him out of operational difficulties. He pretty much always got away with it, but it was a close-run thing at times. Pompey meanwhile, was more of an operational commander, getting troops where they needed to be and trying to win wars without risking a battle so far as possible. That is almost certainly an overgeneralisation. It’s also worth noting that Pompey was for most of his career generalling with the full apparatus of the Roman state behind him, whereas Caesar found himself more often as essentially an adventurer making do with what he had, so the apparent differences in their approaches may just reflect their circumstances, though I do wonder whether either of them was the “complete” general that Marius and Sulla (and Scipio) seem to have been.

      I would also like to know more about the other commanders who have never achieved the same level of celebrity as Caesar and Pompey but achieved conspicuous success in the same era as those two: firstly Lucullus, but also (and especially) Sertorius.

      1. I would take any pretensions Caesar had of operating by the seat of his pants with a grain of salt. Maintaining the buffer and calculating the safe range for those kinds of lunges takes a lot of planning and preparation.

        1. My vague recollection of the little I’ve read of him is that he repeatedly found himself in dire straits that required him to break through an enemy army to get to his resupply when he was desperately short on food, and then he did break through the enemy army and get his resupply.

          Though I guess you can’t say he failed operationally because he didn’t actually run out of food and have his army fall apart, so clearly he brought enough even if it left him with little margin for error.

        2. This may just indicate that Caesar had the misfortune of fighting a lot of enemies who thought it would be smart to maneuver themselves into a position between Caesar’s legions and Caesar’s breakfast.

          1. It is smart to manoeuvre your army into a position between Caesar’s legions and Caesar’s breakfast. It means he has to fight you on ground of your choosing.

          2. Only a fool fights an army that *knows* it needs to win or literally die.

            Or, if you’re smart and lose the battle, you ain’t that smart.

            This was old news in Sun Tzu’s time, you’d think people would learn eventually.

          3. Suffice to say that while Caesar managed to win all the battles that came about because the enemy was between him and breakfast, it might still be counted a misfortune that he had to fight so many of them.

    2. “I don’t know if a lancer can beat a hussar, but if I can make sure I have enough beans and barley on hand to feed two hussars to gang up on the lancer while he’s distracted roaming the countryside looking for someone to make him a sandwich, I’m pretty sure that lancer is gonna go down.”

  6. I like this bit of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” where the magician Jonathan Strange arrives at Wellington’s headquarters and says, well, what magic should I do to help? Can I summon up fearful monsters to fight the French or something?
    And Wellington thinks for a bit and says “I could really do with a good road from A to B”…

    1. Ah, but summoning monsters has its own advantages. Since they’re not with the army until they’re summoned, you don’t have to feed them on the march.

      1. Yes, but you are, I think, going to want to question the Magician closely re: How long the monsters are going to stay around after the battle, and, if the answer is “Some time,” what exactly it is they might want to be fed with.

        1. Love it.
          I have long wanted to design an entirely logistics-focussed war game, where the big challenges are all about maintaining roads and organising convoys, and combat is something that just happens vaguely at the end of the supply lines and isn’t really terribly important. Now I know that there’s going to have to be a set of fantasy variant rules, where “Summon Greater Bloodthirster Demon” is a spell of minor importance compared to “Summon Large Demon With No Particular Combat Ability But Very Large Shovel” or “Summon Immense Pot of Stew”.

          1. The Exalted RPG wasn’t particularly logistics focused, but it did try for more economic and cultural realism than D&D usually does, and did have a large variety of demons one could summon for reasons other than fighting: building things, healing, personal armor, healing… “(Summon) Demon of the First Circle” was the Swiss army knife of spells, if you didn’t mind that it worked by mentally breaking and enslaving a demon…

          2. The Dungeon Samurai has a lot of talk about logistics. Admittedly for a very odd battlefield with very odd supply. . . .

            Though when they are first able to supply plate armor, they give it to the fighters who can use it best, and the main character, who wasn’t one, is not entirely consoled by the litany of its problems, such as contributing to heat stroke.

  7. Now I’m curious; has someone done a comparable study of logistics for New World polities like the Mexica or the Inca? The later at least had llamas (how do they stack up against mules?) but presumably most of the rest had to rely on porters or water traffic.

    1. I don’t know about the Inca but for most of its existence the Mexica empire expanded in ‘bites’ of a few dozens of kilometers at a time, more or less exactly the 5-10 day march distance the Prof Devereaux mentions as being the ‘simple’ marching distance of troops carrying a workable amount of food under their own steam. That fits with the Mexica military system which was more like the Greek militia system than the Roman army system. Even at it’s maximum extent it didn’t really project power more than about 600km from its core (which is still pretty impressive by Neolithic technological standards). One leader who seems to have executed longer distance campaigns is Ahuitzotl, but I’m not sure we know how exactly his logistics worked!

    2. Hmm. I know the Inca internal logistics have seen a bit of study- from my limited knowledge, storage and distribution of excess agricultural production was a major concern of the empire. I haven’t seen much as to how they’d feed an army on the march.

    3. I’ve only read a little bit about New World logistics, but from what I’ve heard they’re a lot more limited than Old World logistics—not helped by the fact that maize as a grain is in some ways limited compared to Old World grains. (Partly because teosinte is a much more average grass, but probably in part because the Old World has a wider variety of grains. Mesoamerica had a bunch of strains of maize, but the Fertile Crescent had a bunch of strains of wheat, a bunch of barley, a bunch of rye…)

      If anyone knows where I can read more than a little bit about New World logistics, I’d like to hear it.

    4. A quick look at my Osprey sources (I acknowledge that Osprey publishing can be very, very hit or miss), in the early campaigns they relied on huge numbers of porters to support their armies. But later they required cities to maintain stores for the armies. Similarly, tributary states along the route of march would be informed of the approach of the army and required to supply them with food.

  8. odd comparison popped into my head: the vague general public conception of an army is like a fossil, where all the soft fleshy parts don’t show up and people only see the bones and teeth, and infer a far more skeletal appearance in life than was real. similarly most people wouldn’t think of the vast supporting body of an army, only the actual combat forces.

    also i really like that first painting. it’s just very aesthetic somehow

    1. The fossil isn’t the bones and teeth themselves. The fossil is the imprint of the bones and teeth in stone. Which is again what we see in history and archaeology.

  9. I’m curious how these non-combatants would be integrated into the marching order and camp arrangement of the army. Presumably some, like pack animal drivers, would have to be considered fully part of the army until it came time to form up and march into an actual battle. Would the merchants, craftspeople, families, etc. similarly be part of the line of the army as it marched, or straggling behind? Would they have room within the camp’s fortifications, or would the Romans (as the obvious example) assemble their playing-card castra with places set for the troops and then the bulk of the noncombatant supporters would have to assemble a shanty nearby? How vulnerable did this make them (and were there norms against attacking the noncombatants), versus how much of a security headache did they create if incorporated into the camp? No doubt this varies widely depending on time and place, so I suppose I’m really asking how the Romans handled it (assuming they’re at one extreme) and then what the tradeoffs were for others who differed from their model.

    1. I remember reading somewhere that the “missing” two men per contubernium (20 per centuria) were in fact these officially-incorporated pack animal drivers. The post mentions that the estimates for their number is one per 4-5 soldiers, exactly (or just short of) the number needed for this to be true.

      1. This is an argument out there and may have been true at some point, but I think probably not generally. The issue here is the contubernium is 1/10th of a century. The math works for the empire with centuries of c. 80, but not for the republic with centuries of c. 60 and thus one assumes contubernia of 6 rather than 8.

    2. Given the Orc Logistics Guy’s repeated emphasis that the camp followers were an essential part of the army’s logistics capability, I can only assume that they would be protected by the fortifications. You’d need to protect the supplies they’re carrying, if nothing else, and once you’ve scaled up your defenses for that purpose the actual people wouldn’t be hard to squeeze in.

      It would not surprise me, though, if there was a hierarchy at play like with castle design. So a really hasty camp might just protect the army itself with the expectation that they would muster out to chase off a raid on the train, but as the army stays in one spot and enhances its fortification it also expands the size of said fortifications to encompass more of the non-combatant followers.

      1. Herodotus reports that the fortified Persian camp at Plataea wasn’t big enough for the whole army. I guess it’s possible that the fortified bit was for the soldiers, with the camp followers and logistics people being left outside.

      2. Camp followers could also be absolutely essential to maintaining and protecting the camp itself. As others have noted, an army’s camp is an extremely tempting target, and having people who are semi-permanently attached to the army – and therefore have more to gain from the army continuing to exist and function than they’re likely to gain from a one-off raid – inside the camp while the bulk of the army is outside doing army things can be very valuable:

        At the Battle of Keresztes (1596), the Ottoman army suffered a series of reverses (thanks in no small part to the dithering incompetence of Murad III, everyone’s least favourite Sultan), to the point that the Habsburg army broke into their camp- but the tide was turned by the Ottoman cooks, smiths, and other camp followers attacking the elements of the Christian army that had descended into looting. Without having enough of an army left to exploit the opening, this obviously wouldn’t have come to anything (camp followers against any effective army is going to be a one-sided butchery), but in this case, at least, it was enough to let the remaining core of the Ottoman army turn what looked like a certain devastating loss into a major victory- and the battle is popularly known in Turkey as Kepçe Kazan Savaşı (The Battle of Spoon and Pot) because of it.

        1. (Apologies, correction to the record: I meant to type Mehmed III there, not Murad III. The rest stands.)

    3. The opposing camp was just about always fair game if you could get to it, and since that’s where the army stored all it’s valuables it was a place the other army absolutely *wanted* to get to… Often despite their general’s attempts to stop them.

      “Soldiers ignore the rest of the battle to go off plundering the enemy camp” is a trope for a reason.

      1. And if your own logistics weren’t managing, that’s where the food was. It might even be cooked!

  10. Do we have any evidence for butter consumption in armies? I seem to remember reading somewhere about the arctic expeditions that they often carried lots of butter, since that was apparently one of the best calories to weight around due to its high fat content. I remember one of your previous posts (sadly, not which one exactly) saying that the Romans were proud of eating cheese, so they must have had dairy and that in turn implies they could make butter, but do we have any written evidence of them having done so? And if we don’t, why not, since that seems to be a fairly logical step for them to have taken and someone would have presumably mentioned it. I ask because I didn’t see any mention of it in the post.

    1. The Romans are famous for consuming olive oil (they used to say you could draw a line across continental Europe between olive oil and butter, wine and beer and Catholicism and Protestantism, but I think that’s been debunked), so I don’t know if they had butter. But they did have laridum, which is, well, lard, and it was part of a soldier’s rations according to “Tasting History”:

      1. In India ghee- butter refined completely into butterfat- was preferred because it could stand higher temperatures for longer than butter. Doubtless it was something Indian armies used.

    2. You need more than calories — you need nutrients. And you need dairy animals for the milk to make into butter. Animal products are a luxury good in almost every era, so it’s easier and cheaper to feed soldiers with bread.

      1. Man does not live by bread alone. Nor do soldiers.

        Eating just bread will not do very long. You need something else right quick. What that something is, is partly a matter of culture but mostly a matter of what’s available. This tended to be some kind of edible oils. Butter, cheese, lard and olive oil are common the Med. But it might mean a bean paste or something almost anywhere. Grain is (usually) the base, but other foods are not luxuries except under the most strained and dire circumstances.

        Now in Roman culture specifically, butter was much less culinarily important than olive oil. Naturally this would vary by location and hence local supply. Troops probably got more butter and less oil in Britannia.

        1. Yep, grain is the base, but it’s supplemented: Usually by some kind of fat, and occasionally by some kind of salted and/or dried protein. (salt pork seems to have been common in european armies, as was dried fish)

          And as mentioned, alcohol.

      2. It’s not obvious that bread is cheaper to feed the army with. A major point of Brett’s post is that weight is expensive, and OP says specifically that

        > [butter has] one of the best calories to weight around due to its high fat content

        If dairy is more expensive than hardtack, but also more dense, it means you can bring fewer mules and use your mule budget to buy butter. Since it’s not mentioned in the post, presumably this wasn’t a good tradeoff. Except for the Mongols 🙂

        1. You’d probably also smack into hard limits on supply. Your entire civilization produces grain in large amounts, and it’s routinely stored in such a way that it has to keep for a year or so between harvests. Grain will always be available to feed your troops, except under famine conditions, and the fact that you need to requisition extra grain in some years but not in others won’t change much.

          By contrast, butter/cheese production is likely to be a fixed consequence of how many dairy cattle a region has, and isn’t very flexible. The stuff doesn’t keep for months and months on end (except for certain special cheeses), and so tends to be consumed rather than stockpiled, past a certain point. Maybe you cannot requisition one thousand tons of butter in a hurry because the army is going on campaign as easily as you can requisition two thousand tons of grain. Or you can’t count on having dairy everywhere you go because the supplies vary more as a function of what the local economy is like.

    3. As far as I remember from course literature I should have read this term, butter consumption did not become common in the Mediterranean until the Late Middle Ages, since they could use olive oil for most purposes instead. I think that was discussed in “Medieval tastes: food, cooking, and the table” by Massimo Montanari

    4. I’m not sure about armies, but I’ve looked into the rations of 18th/early 19th century navies (Aubrey and Hornblower influenced me quite a bit), and they include butter and cheese as well as sugar, soukraut, and other such non-meat-and-bread rations. Don’t get me wrong, bread still dominates the diet, but they certainly had the rest. Plus, butter and cheese keep fairly well. Butter was salted, and cheese can be made into forms that have essentially indefinite shelf lives. I can’t imagine soldiers’ diets were less dainty than that of sailors, since the supply lines are MUCH better (at least for those ships doing blue-water sailing as opposed to coasting duties).

      1. Why would navies have worse supply lines? I would have thought that navies, being constantly on the water, could take advantage of all the efficiencies of water transport and generally have better supply lines. Even just the acquisition of river barges to land army transport massively increases what the army can carry, and generally sea transport was far more efficient.

        1. You’re not wrong, but blue-water navies have a much tougher supply problem. Armies, by and large, are traveling in places where people live; they can’t carry food for long, but it’s easier to resupply. Blue-water navies, by definition, are spending extended periods of time in places with no human contact aside from their shipmates and occasionally other ships in much the same situation.

          It’s basically like space travel on easy mode. You can supplement your supplies by catching seabirds and fishing, but for the most part you need to carry all your supplies with you for a long voyage. And that includes drinking supplies; as a certain ancient mariner put it, “water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”

          1. Forester claims the water ration for Royal Navy sailors was two quarts per day; but that neglects that they were allotted as much as a gallon a day of small beer, or a comparable fraction of stronger alcohol served watered down (“grog”). All told their ration of liquid seems to have been about one gallon per man per day of some mixture of water and alcohol, which is about what you’d expect for men performing heavy manual labor in the sun.

          2. Little known fact, but seabird tastes rancid, it’s very oily and stringy. You could eat it but it wouldn’t be very pleasant at all.

        2. For blue-water navies, they’ll be spending a very long time on deployment, and it can be hard to resupply. If you’re terribly unlucky, you need to go blockade a port on the far side of the Atlantic from your closest friendly port.

        3. The big issue was that ships couldn’t meet mid-ocean to resupply with any kind of reliability. Away from the coastline, simply there existed no method for them to navigate to a common spot with good enough accuracy to see each other — even in latitude, well into the early modern era, having to get into less than 50 km or 0.45°.

          Naval supply was largely limited by spoilage rather than quantity. On land, most things (notably grain and its products) were preserved by keeping them dry. Hence (after the decline of the amphora) naval rations, including hardtack and meat, were kept in barrels to insulate them from moisture as much as possible, and usually packed in the companion of liberal quantities of salt to absorb what inevitably got in. Turning such ingredients — deliberately made inedible even to bugs and molds — into something that humans could eat presented another difficulty.

          For that matter, freshwater doesn’t keep indefinitely in wooden barrels! This was solved remarkably late, around the Napoleonic era, by the introduction of wrought iron barrels.

          1. Wrought iron water barrels are the sort of thing expensive enough that it’s easy to see why navies didn’t invest in them until the 1700s or early 1800s, when metal production started to increase towards Industrial Revolution levels. Wood for barrels is cheap; iron barrels are not, and every X iron barrels you make is Y cannonballs you didn’t make.

          2. IIRC, they were not barrels but tanks, built into the ship. Making large iron plates is difficult. Joining large iron plates so that they are watertight in a ship that flexes is even more difficult.

      2. One big difference is that a ship can carry provisions in giant barrels and tubs that would be impractical to carry on land, or that wouldn’t survive being bounced around on a wagon or in a soldier’s backpack for very long. This may impact which foodstuffs a navy chooses to carry.

    5. I’ve read that viking “standard rations” centred around typical staple grains and skyr (fermented dairy in the vein of yoghurt) and cream cheese/ butter type products. I expect that any way to store and transport the nutritional value of dairy would be used in many cultures.

  11. I expect you’ll get into this in the next post, but while reading this piece I kept thinking about pre-positioned supply dumps located in caches or in forts.

    1. I think Alexander did some of propositioned caches for the route home from India, but I’m not whether I’m remembering the book on Macedonian logistics (which I read years ago) or Mary Renault (ditto, actually)

      1. I remember someone in one of my history classes forty years ago who had the same problem, He made some assertion, and the professor pointed out gently that Mary Renault is actually not a primary source.

  12. I desperately need this to be modelled better in Europa Universalis 5. Attrition is nice and all but there needs to be a way to say “you can’t send an army here because they will all die on the way.”

    Also, I hope we get to see the effect of ships for overseas supply. You can deliver a lot more food that way but coordination seems like more of a problem.

  13. Why didn’t the Romans use 4-wheeled wagons? Surely someone who knows how to make a 2-wheeled wagon could figure out how to make it with four.

    1. The tricky bit to a four-wheel wagon is allowing one if the sets of wheels to rotate on the left/right axis: otherwise, the wagon will fight very hard to keep going straight. Either you need to come up with a turnable axle, or you need to have enough pulling force (and strong enough wheels) that you can pull them sideways.

    2. Cutting costs and increasing speed are possible factors. The Mormon pioneers in the 1850s switched from the classic covered wagon to two-wheeled handcarts for these reasons.

      1. The Mormon pioneers used handcarts to cut costs. They were not faster than covered wagons. They also weren’t ideal if you wanted your group to be in fighting condition at the end of the trek.

        Handcarts were less common than they are famous. Only 3,000/70,000 Mormon pioneers traveled by handcart. The handcart companies were also somewhat experimental. The first year had 5 companies, two of which started too late and had to be rescued (Willie & Martin) There were 1-2 handcraft companies per year for a few more years.

        After 1860, Brigham Young had a different strategy for getting the poorest converts to Utah. He would send wagons east early in the spring with trade goods (furs I think). They would sell the goods, fill the wagons with food, and pick up the converts. The converts would walk to Utah, with supplies and guides in the wagons. By 1869, the railroad had reached Utah. Even before then, the partially completed railroad would significantly shorten the trip.

        Source: I’m descended from members of the Martin handcart company.

  14. I wonder if male prostitutes ever followed followed Roman armies. We know of homosexual prostitution in Roman cities, and via Wikipedia I found a mention (Ps.Caes. BHisp. 33) of a Roman officer having a concubinus with him

    1. I suspect that normally they’d have officially done some other job (porter, officer’s slave, etc.), with prostitution being an unofficial sideline (albeit in some cases, perhaps, an unofficial sideline that brought in most of their money).

  15. As for so much else concerning armies Xenophon’s Anabasis is such an easy to understand foundation from which to begin the studies of feeding an army on the move. The theme of ‘the market’ and plundering the villages and farmers on the route runs all the way through it. Which of course Our Host knows very well. But The Anabasis is relatively new to me, as we are reading it aloud to each other before lights out — and this time around, it really is as entertaining as a good action adventure novel or film, filled with fascinating characters. We still feel the successes and failures as vividly now as no doubt Xenophon did when writing it.

  16. ‘D.W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (1978) remains, to my knowledge, the standard reference though it is dated and not without problems.’

    Certainly a work that is ubiquitous and suppose because small and inexpensive gets used a lot but really needs the author to do an updated version.

    Drilling into the footnotes Engels has some really odd gaffs in the work. A few that stick with me are the ideal that horses don’t eat at night. Relying on Lefebvre des Noëttes. He almost willfully misuses some cited data on the logistics of wagon delivery to Washington’s army at Valley Forge and camels in India under the British raj. Also his references to the British postal wagon loads and times don’t hold up if you dig up the old 1800s work he references.
    . .

  17. One thing I want to back up and question here: “meat at least could be smoked, salted or made into jerky, but its expense made it an optional bonus to the diet rather than the core of it.”

    Speaking of animal products more generally, not just meat: I am not entirely sure this is true, at least not outside of shorter stretches, although in some armies the troops would be paid in some fashion so they could acquire their own. Soldiers are going to need protein added to the diet. You could get away with legumes if available, but that adds cooking requirements. And most substitutes for meat have their own issues with storage.

    Soldiers won’t generally have body-builder-like protein requirements, but I think they would need regular rations of meat products. Of course armies often carried meat-on-the-hoof with them in some form, so transportation was not always a problem.

    1. Wheat and other grains often have decent protein contents. Not as much as meat or nuts, but enough that you don’t need much meat or nuts if you’ve got the right bread.

      This is less true of many modern grain products, by the by. White bread and white rice are, as I understand it, ways of delivering as much of the most viscerally tasty parts of the grain, at the expense of the more broadly nutritious bits.

      1. Maybe. But the documented ancient rations I could find indicated that meat was a very regular and important part. This may have been preference rather than necessity, but I would not stake on that with being very careful.

      2. 850 grams of modern supermarket bread will give you 60-90 grams of protein – enough for a typical adult. Unlike ancient bread, it’s enriched with essential minerals beyond salt. However, essential amino acids aren’t balanced, so you will need more than 90 grams of pure wheat and rye protein to meet all your protein needs. It’s vitamin deficient, which will become a problem over the course of a month or two. Finally, while the bread contains the essential fatty acids, it’s less than the recommended daily intake.


        1. Supermarket bread is ‘enriched’ because white flour loses many of the vitamins and nutrients in the first place, compared to whole wheat flour. I would guess pre-modern bread was usually healthier in this respect, unless you were an elite who could afford finely milled white bread.

  18. “And at last we now have the scale of our problem: our lean army of 19,200 fighting men consumes an astounding 61,850kg (68.18 US tons) of food daily.”

    And, not to be too delicate, that 61 tons of food has to go somewhere after being digested. Nobody really wants to talk about it, but it *is* a part of logistics: where do you put 61 tons of shit every day?

    1. You don’t want to sh*t where you sleep, so do your business after breaking camp or on the road. If the army is on the march, it’s not hard to make someone else’s problem.

      If the army isn’t on the march…well, that army is spread over dozens of acres at the bare minimum. Digging latrines isn’t pleasant or easy, but it’s not challenging per se. Just something you need to order some soldiers to do when you set up your fortified camp.

      1. Interestingly enough the sewage problem isn’t much of a problem. Digging some holes and latrines way from the water will serve well enough unless the army is going to be in camp for awhile. Then more permanent measures will need to be taken, but these are doable.

        The difficulty in many armies seems to have been enforcing it. Undisciplined soldiers seem to quote literally have a problem with “doing their business” next to their water sources for some bizarre reason. This seems rather bizarre to me as in civilian life I’m pretty sure they would recognize the problem, but perhaps unfamiliarity with camp life affects soldiers. They are apt to be somewhat confused and hurrying around on a daily basis, after all, and may not have planned ahead for a call of nature.

        A slightly more complicated problem is that camps wouldn’t always have been for one combined unit, and sometimes a body of troops are in the bad habit of managing restroom matters for themselves just fine – but polluting the water source for the neighboring regiment or whatever. This may not be human waste, either – horses and livestock should never be bathed upstream of other troops’ water.

        1. Like foraging or organised looting, proper sanitation practices were something that demanded constant pressure and habitual discipline. The Romans probably had it; some medieval armies had it, but impromptu levies did not (and suffered accordingly). One chronicler notes that the Mongols did not – and were therefore prone to outbreaks of sickness if they tried a prolonged siege. This may be because it’s less of a problem for people who move every week or two.

      2. I once read an account of British army life in the Napoleonic Wars, which mentioned that soldiers on the march could get a passport from their officer authorising them to break ranks and attend to nature’s call in the bushes.

        I also read another account of British army life, this time in WW1, which mentioned an officer (I can’t remember which rank) called Shoot, who was apparently something of an unpopular martinet and very big on lavatorial hygiene. His men composed a little ditty on the subject, which ended:

        “For shit can be left in a corner,
        And paper provided to suit:
        But shit would be shot without mourners,
        If somebody shot that shit Shoot.”

  19. Re: “The Landsknecht and his Wife”
    I’ve seen this woodcarving before but never really considered something I noticed this time.
    That dog between his legs… artistic license to get it in frame, or did they have Chihuahua-sized dogs then & were they popular with these guys?

      1. Small dogs that yap incessantly at anyone and everyone coming near the soldier’s stuff, or when he’s sleeping, could also be very useful during soldiering life I expect.

  20. At last, the Orc Logistics Guy is diving deep into logistics that don’t involve orcs!
    (Though jokes aside, I think orc logistics are a pretty cool thing to have a reputation for. That might be a disproportionately common opinion among ACoUP readers, though…

    [T]he United States much like the Romans has a well-earned reputation for better than average rations, though this is admittedly a low bar.

    thinks back to my dad’s horror stories about MREs, including an “omelette” often compared to a gray lung
    Damn. I feel sorry for soldiers eating average rations.

      1. A friend of mine, while studying history, spent a while trialling the rations of various nations in WW2 (both military and civilian). Unsurprisingly the late-war German rations were particularly unpleasant, as well as posing a difficulty in sourcing bread bulked out with sawdust.

    1. There was an urban legend that the Union army regularly went without food during the American Civil War. I got that from Hard Tack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life by John D. Billings, who observed that people asked him whether he always had enough to eat, and were surprised to hear that he had, and when another soldier sighed and wished he could say the same, he had always found that careful questioning elicited that the other soldier had gone a day, or maybe two, without food.

      His description of the food, OTOH, was less charming.

  21. Re. carrying rations by backpack, I am reminded of the lines from “The Hobbit” as the company embarks on the Mirkwood leg of their journey:

    “They distributed the packages as fairly as they could, though Bilbo thought his lot was wearisomely heavy, and did not at all like the idea of trudging for miles and miles with all that on his back.
    “Don’t you worry!” said Thorin. “It will get lighter all too soon. Before long I expect we shall all wish our packs heavier, when the food begins to run short.”

    1. the logistical advantages of Tolkien’s Elves in warfare also becomes apparent to anyone reading LOTR and paying attention to Legolas. not only can they go for longer without food and water before feeling the effects, they have absurdly high endurance for forced marches (both can be seen in the “The Riders of Rohan” chapter of Two towers, where the Three Hunters force march while tracking the orc warparty for days with little rest and little food.)
      Plus to those elf factions with access to it, Lembas is a near ideal field ration, being basically a more palatable version of hardtack that keeps nearly indefinitely and supplies all the nutritional needs.(plus it is implied to have a magical effect of bolstering the spirit if consumed for prolonged periods)

      an Elf Army limited entirely to what they can carry in packs would have absurd strategic range compared to dwarves and especially Men. (and we see dwarves do a fairly impressive forced march with heavy packs in the forces from the Iron hills, which showed up at the lonely mountain in heavy armor carrying extra large packs of supplies to provide months of rations for a siege, and still managed to cross the couple hundred miles between Erebor and the iron hills in only a few days with 500 Dwarf troops on foot.)

      1. The Numenoreans had similar advantages, with their own magical forms of food and drink. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be representative, but the notes that JRRT made for the unpublished “Disaster at the Gladden Fields” story stated that Isildur’s warparty coming back home (So about 200 men, traveling through the wilderness, with rations they were carrying with them), expected to go from Minas Tirith to Rivendell in one trip without stop. This was somewhat aided by the fact that they also were able to march 24 miles on an average day instead of the usual medieval norm of 10 or so.

      2. The recent Nature of Middle-earth has Tolkien musing on this. From my notes:

        elves on horseback: faster and sturdier, Eol riding 9 hours at “gentle for him” 9 MPH, 70 miles/day with breaks. holiday pace.
        could do 85 miles a day, or 100/day for 2 days with strain.

        I’m not sure how much of Shadowfax’s speed was running faster than other horses, vs. just running tirelessly. Bit of both, but I think more the latter. From the Appendices, Gandalf rides from Edoras to the Shire in 4 or 5 days, which is insane, but hey, magic horse. More egregiously, the Nazul ride from Isengard to the Shire in about the same time period, with more ordinary horses (but perhaps enhanced somehow?) Probably 500-600 miles.

        1. Driven on by their fear aura? Also the Nazgul might not be very heavy considering their near intangible nature.

          1. IIRC the Nazgul horses were actually immune to the fear aura, as no ordinary beast could stand to bear them. They’re probably augmented in some other ways as well.

      3. Orcs do have their own moderate logistical edge with Orc-draught, which lets Merry and Pipen run beyond their normal limits to keep up, though the orcs who fear the sun flag and slow when it rises. I’ve often wondered if the Orc-draught is a corrupted relative of Lembas.

        1. It’s funny that Tolkien never considered orcs as corrupted dwarves, because they fit really well: similar size, habitat, stamina, and lifespan. (The one orc lifespan we know is Bolg, getting killed 140 years after his father Azog.) And no timeline problems like “orcs as corrupted men”.

          (Silmarillion has orcs as possibly being corrupted elves, but HoME tells us Tolkien didn’t like that and tried to move away, though he never settled on an idea he did like. He did decide orcs were mortal.)

          1. IIRC, Melkor introduced orcs while the Fathers of the Dwarves were still sleeping, so he would not have had any access to dwarves to breed them into orcs.

          2. I recall no text that says orcs were seen in the field before the dwarves awoke. Nor text that says how long after the first elves, the dwarves awoke.

          3. personally i ascribe to a hybrid origin for Orcs and Goblins. the first ones probably were just soulless constructs of Melkor, little more than puppets. then when the Elves woke up melkor abducts some and used them to create a new, smarter strain of orc, breeding both together (or using dark craft to transfer parts of souls) in order to create orcs that had self-existence and aren’t just an extension of melkor. these are the orcs that he unleashes in the 1st age. as Men and dawrves wake he abducts them and uses them in the same eugenics program, to breed various strains of orc blending traits for all the races. perhaps even using some lesser maiar in the mix as well. thus the big uruks might be more men and elf, while the smaller snaga having more dwarf in them, etc. when melkor fell this eugenics effort fell apart and the different types mixed. which is why it took sauron thousands of years (the whole of the 2nd and 3rd age) to recreate the uruk’s/black orcs in sufficient numbers to use them on Minas Tirith. (Saruman cheated and used human/orc breeding programs to create a much smaller force, relying on tactical training to make up the difference. too bad his strategic campaign planning sucked)

          4. To judge from the Tolkien Gateway, I recollected incorrectly: the Elves had contact with the dwarves before encountering the first orcs:

            Of course, Tolkien may have thought of the dwarves as having awoken after the creation of the orcs, even if he never explicitly wrote that down. It’s his world-building, after all.

  22. Bret, I may have asked about this before but I’ll repeat it here: the Chinese had something that afaik western armies did not, a “wheelbarrow” that unlike western wheelbarrows bore the weight of the load entirely on the wheel and were in essence one-wheeled hand carts. These could be pushed or pulled, or both with two people for an exceptionally heavy load. And importantly, these required much less road width than a two- or four-wheeled cart; often a track no wider than a footpath would suffice. Given the superior performance of this design, I was curious if it made Chinese logistics significantly improved over what western armies dealt with.

    1. IIRC most of the Chinese wheelbarrows, by design, still need to be pulled or pushed by men rather than (or alongside) working animals. In other words, Chinese wheelbarrows might also require more people to operate than a wagon (and historically China was not in lack of manpower), which would reduce their effectiveness for long range campaign (while might still really good for short range campaign or foraging).

      1. Doubtless you wouldn’t expect to completely replace wagons with wheelbarrows. But if soldiers are having to make the march anyway, instead of carrying their armor, weapons, rations and camp gear on their backs they could probably carry more supplies with less effort with wheelbarrows.

        1. Then I guess the situation might be similar to our host described – soldiers in many cultures generally did not really want to carry the load themselves.

          I remember Northern Song era (960-1125 CE) records mentioned that average soldiers at the time would even hire a regular peasant or idle to carry the weapon and rations for them, rather than doing it themselves.

          Additionally, pushing or pulling a wheelbarrow is usually viewed as a very peasanty thing in the Chinese context, which might not fit well to soldiers’ self-esteem until very recently in PLA.

          1. Even in that case, any improvement on the “supplies carried vs. supplies eaten” ratio would be welcome.

          2. Yeah, and as I said in the other reply, in Chinese history we do have examples of an entire army (possibly) rely on wheelbarrows for supply and it worked just as well.

    2. In addition to my other comment: When I was in school in China, one of the PRC state-building myth taught in class is that, the PLA’s success in the Huaihai Campaign (1948-1949) was primarily based on millions of peasants transporting supplies to PLA troops using handbarrows and wheelbarrows.

      I never checked if this myth was really based or not, but it might be worth noting.

      1. That may be plausible.
        Certainly, if an army was trying to effectively supply repeating rifles, machine guns, and breach loading artillery with enough ammunition via wheelbarrow over any significant distande, they would have more people running wheelbarrows than they would have people firing the guns.

        And it would be easier to persuade or compel people into noncombat roles in support of a risky cause, than it would combat roles.
        At the time it wouldn’t have been entirely certain among the peasantry that they would win, no matter what the level of popular support was or what the officers thought, so peasants would be more eager/willing to contribute in ways that wouldn’t see as harsh a retaliation for as serving directly in the army.

  23. I wonder about the value of something like the Asian-style wheelbarrow here (a platform with a wheel stuck through the middle of it). From the article I read . . . uh, years ago . . . it can carry far more weight than a front-wheeled barrow (because that weight is more squarely distributed down onto the wheel, not onto the hands of the person pushing or pulling the barrow), and it’s far more maneuverable than a vehicle of either two or four wheels, because it only needs enough navigable path for that single wheel. Now, obviously that won’t be able to carry as much weight as a two-wheeled cart, much less a four-wheeled wagon — cf. the above about Roman carts — but the efficiency of the design makes it relatively easy to pull by whatever means are available, humans included. It wouldn’t surprise me if these figure into the logistics of, say, Chinese armies, though I recognize that’s well outside the realm of our host’s expertise. If anybody here knows about that, however, I’m interested!

    1. My book about such is “Mechanics of pre-industrial technology”, Cotterell & Kamminga, 1990. (If anyone can recommend a more recent book, please do!)

      On wheelbarrows, the book quotes Chinese general Zhuge Liang in the 3rd C CE that a one person wheelbarrow (Asian) could carry 180 kg a distance 10 km per day. That’s more than a mule, but only about half the speed.

      The major problem I see is that, again from the book, small wheels have more resistance and are more likely to get stuck in rough terrain, especially if there is only one wheel rather than four. The linked article – thank you Michael – says that the wheelbarrows were used on specially paved footpaths. So the wheelbarrows might be more efficient, but your army would be limited to only high quality roads.

      1. As you can see in the pictures, the Chinese wheelbarrow wheel was much larger than western wheelbarrow wheels — larger than bicycle wheels, even. As for paving, I dunno; article says

        “Although the wheelbarrow required a road, a very narrow path (about as wide as the wheel) sufficed, and it could be bumpy.”

        “Increasingly, it was the only vehicle that could be operated on the deteriorating road network. As F.H. King observed: “For adaptability to the worst road conditions no vehicle equals the wheelbarrow, progressing by one wheel and two feet””

        “Rough unpaved cart-tracks predominated only in the Eastern plains.”

        Obviously it would be easier to use on pavement of some sort, but I see no reason you couldn’t push it through a dirt path, and it seems they were indeed used on such.

        1. The Chinese wheelbarrow has a large wheel, a cart has four even larger wheels. Less rolling resistance for the cart.

          The linked article specifically states that the the wheelbarrow road network was better quality than westerners thought. In the places with lots of people, they tried hard to pave the wheelbarrow paths. Even a narrow track would be expensive and require frequent maintenance, so I assume that the Chinese did so because they really needed to.

          There’s a big difference between “I can push a wheelbarrow over a few metres of softer earth between sections of pavement” and “I can push a wheelbarrow over a kilometre of softer earth”. If an army needs to be able to travel on both good and poor quality roads, carts that are reasonably economical on both will be more useful than wheelbarrows that only work well on good roads.

          1. Areas of reasonably dense settlement build up networks of good paths. The Himalayas, for instance, is covered in porter trails, of packed earth or paved with stone, with rest benches, retaining walls, bridges and so on, built out from each village until they connect. Heavy traffic (and mules especially) will break them down, but they can easily be repaired. Western Europe and China is much the same. For an army, the issue is width and consequent speed of movement (the narrower the road, the slower a mass moves)

        2. Any given dirt path will spend a significant fraction of the time being a mud path, at least along certain stretches that may be tens or hundreds of meters long depending on the terrain.

          Pushing a wheelbarrow along a packed dirt road is doable. Pushing it through a mudhole, not so much. Total logistical dependency on porters pushing wheelbarrows, as oppoed to pack animals, could thus put your army in a very bad situation if it rained a lot that week.

          1. You could also _pull_ the one-wheeled handcart, which of course gets you over bumps and mud much easier.

      2. So, if you use 2 drivers per whellbarrow (and change them every few hours) they would work like three or four porters. Depending how easy you can access draft animals, and how easy you can access human labour, that might be a valuable alternative.

    2. It seems to me that this a is a choice between small human powered carts, and large animal powered ones. Under what circumstances would you prefer human powered ones?

      Could the small human powered cart/ wheelbarrows be powered by the marching soldiers?

      1. One circumstance would be having many more humans than draft animals, which seems to be a feature of Chinese rice farming vs. European grain farming.

        Another would be if your terrain has a lot of small trails vs. big roads, especially if you don’t have *small* draft animals (vs. a water buffalo). Or (more speculatively) trails rough enough that it would make a large animal cart difficult, but that humans can wrestle a wheelbarrow through.

        1. Large parts of Europe simply can’t be farmed with a scratch plow, only with a plowshare. It delayed population growth more than wheat vs. rice.

  24. The “Women in War” article noting the sheer WEIGHTS that camp-followers were loaded with was a very sobering “water is wet” moment for me. My accidental dips into “should women be in combat?” discussions online routinely have modern soldiers assume that “women won’t be able to carry a full load of kit, and they COULD NEVER lift a man who outsizes them!”, but have those soldiers considered that an office-worker would be at a different fitness level from a kitchen cook who routinely hefts up 50-70lbs of food, or nurses who carry sick/wounded people?

    My time as a kitchen cook involved hauling 50lb sacks of food around, so that’s a bit less than half my weight. Last I checked, that’s the REQUIREMENT for restaurants, and employers definitely aren’t chivalrous enough to scale things down if an applicant is five feet tall, like me. I don’t like it, but I can DO IT. And that’s when I’m just “normal fit” and not actually strength-training, so I have no doubt that I could carry a soldier’s kit (or fireman-carry a male soldier) if I got whipped into shape.

    For the camp-follower’s cargo estimates, “50-60lbs of supplies + 1-3 children [30-60lbs?] + a small dog [10-20lbs?]” easily reaches A HUNDRED AND FORTY POUNDS for a given soldier’s wife/girlfriend, well before modern nutrition or strength-training, and that’s when I’m low-balling it because dogs and children vary so much in size.

    Now, I’m not ENDORSING a loaded march with 60-140lbs, because reading about camp-women being overworked and ignored/reviled by historical men, while MODERN men claim that “women are too delicate and can’t carry the ARMY LOADS” just sounds like double-standard business as usual, but it seems the thought process of “Women are DELICATE??? Depends on if she’s rich or not, lol! My wife can carry my kit for a day, do the laundry after carrying my kit for a day, nurse my wounded teammates, take care of my kids/pets, and steal from farmers!” would go over about as well as “lowering our precious and time-honored Army Standards, so women can fight.”

    1. I’m not arguing with your larger point, but surely the dog and most of the children can carry themselves.

      1. The equipment for this camp had to be carried from the railhead at Chaikhosi, a distance of five hundred miles. Five porters would be needed for this. Two porters would be needed to carry food for these five, and another would carry the food for these two. His food would be carried by a boy. The boy would carry his own food.

      2. Children and dogs can walk, sure, but can they keep pace with adult soldiers for a full march? The article’s quote said that the women were CARRYING their children as well as supplies, and that they CARRIED their dogs when the footing got too rough, so that’s what I accounted for. Even if the kids and dogs were “only” taking short breaks every hour or so, that would average out to a soldier’s wife carrying 70-100lbs in a regular day, and she could potentially double that weight in emergencies.

        Given a worst-case scenario of “grab the important stuff and run,” I imagine people are a lot more willing to hedge their bets with “(over)loading the adult camp followers with children/pets, the wounded, and whatever supplies are in sight” than “not doing that, and hoping your children, small animals, and wounded can keep pace with everyone else.”

        I’ve seen a lot of writers working out logistics who tend to forget the human/living-creature aspect because when they ask things like “how long can a horse gallop, and at what speed?”, they’re expecting answers like “a horse can gallop X many miles for Y many minutes,” and they often get thrown off when actual horse-riders point out, “Well, there’s a lot of answers to that question, but first off: Does your protagonist care about their horse, and do you want both of them to SURVIVE afterward?”

        Going back to the camp-follower cargo estimates, a soldier’s wife COULD force her kid to walk for longer “because they’re old enough,” but does she WANT TO? How much trouble is it going to be when the kid just starts crying and refuses to move?

        And in modern times, if you ask an average father or pet-owner if he wants his five/ten-year-old child or his 10-ish pound terrier to do a march with soldiers, there would most likely be protests. A six-year-old in Kentucky was put into a 20-mile marathon with his parents, and the backlash was pretty loud. ( )

    2. Men’s greater physical strength and resilience against stress injuries is a fact. It’s both easy and fairly common to turn that into sexism of the “delicate wilting flower” variety, but the opposite of a bad idea is usually another bad idea, and thinking that women are on average just as suited to carrying heavy loads over long distances does qualify.

      As for specifics, I really doubt camp followers carried their children. The kind of army that has soldier families within the campaigning community is one with a large tail to teeth ratio. It’s moving pretty slowly (so children can walk) and has plenty of wagons (which toddlers can ride). That takes a big chunk off the load a woman has to carry, and makes her walk shorter distances. It’s still very hard for her, but that’s a price that the powers that be will pay without thinking for two reasons.

      One, exhausting your soldiers means an army is less effective when it has to fight, but wearing out camp followers has a much lesser cost for its primary function. This is also why pack animals get worked without mercy. Two, we’re talking about agricultural and patriarchal societies. Brutal physical labor is the norm, and so is having women do about as much of drudgery as possible. Within this system, female camp follower has status somewhere between a soldier and a mule.

      Technology changes things, of course. No army fields all-terrain robot pack mules right now, but it’s not science fiction anymore. That’d compensate for a weakness of infantrywomen – and most things they do just as well as infantrymen.

      1. If women are at a disadvantage as infantry soldiers, and not as other types of soldier that make up most of a modern army, it makes more sense to use them in the roles at which they face no disadvantage.

        I suspect that for infantrywomen to be common you will need an era of something like powered armour, like that of the Adepta Sororitas.

        1. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers depicted women as predominating in the space fleet, and men in the Mobile Infantry.

        2. Biological modification such as gene editing would probably be another good example of what you are talking about

      2. All right, so I find it very telling that my back-of-napkin calculations about the cargo carried by soldier’s wives is constantly dismissed by people going, “Women wouldn’t be CARRYING THE CHILDREN AND DOGS!!! Those two can walk!”

        How else would you interpret this quote from “Women in War?” The caps-lock emphasis is mine.

        “Turner’s use of the term “mules” points to the HEAVY LABOR these formidable women performed. An anonymous handwritten German manuscript of 1612 detailed the load carried by women on the march:

        Seldom is one found who does not CARRY AT LEAST 50 or 60 pounds. [The] soldier…loads straw and wood on her, TO SAY NOTHING OF the fact that many of them CARRY ONE, TWO, OR THREE CHILDREN ON THEIR BACK. […] [T]hey carry for the man one pair of breeches, one pair of stockings, one pair of shoes. And for themselves the same number of shoes and stockings, one jacket, two Hemmeter [shifts], one pan, one pot, one or two spoons, one sheet, one overcoat, one tent and three poles. They receive no wood for cooking in their billets, and so THEY PICK IT UP ON THE WAY. And TO ADD TO THEIR FATIGUE, they normally lead a small dog on a rope or even CARRY HIM IN BAD WEATHER.”

        Link is .

        So clearly, this man saw camp-women carrying 1) their cargo of 50-60lbs in supplies, and 2) any children they had AT LEAST part of the time, and 3) a pet AT LEAST part of the time, and 3) firewood for heating up the pots they’re carrying.

        The 1-3 children are the most variable “cargo” for me, because infants need carrying all the time (and constant feeding and diaper-changing as well), but the children who ARE walking age at 5-10 years old, and who’d only need some short breaks, would still be a “second load” of kit at 40-60lbs apiece when they get tossed on over the camp supplies.

        As for people worried about the “biological risks” that putting women in infantry may pose, by having them carry the same weights of kit or march as long as a man, I don’t see the difference between “keeping the weight/marching standards so whichever women meet them can enlist, even if they end up rare,” or “lowering the standards slightly for women, so more of them can fight as a whole.”

        That last part often makes modern male combatants gripe about how “we can’t just lower army standards for WOMEN to fight! THEY’RE GOING TO BE LIABILITIES!”, but that rings very hollow to me, considering that there’s many cases throughout history of teenage boys and elderly/disabled men enlisting of their own will.

        I don’t get why it’s more acceptable and often lauded for a given army-squad to make excuses for a fifteen-year-old boy / fifty-year-old man who’s lying about their age and cannot meet the army standards on their own, but letting a healthy adult woman enlist openly, and you DON’T have to make excuses or worry about someone turning her in, is unthinkable.

        Well, I probably know that the answer is “‘Doing the Right Thing Against The Law’ is a great story,” and “men have historically been allowed to do things that women can’t,” but as long as people mentioned “biology” and “health risks,” I thought I’d toss out how “army standards are constantly flouted, and there’s been PLENTY of unfit boys and men who made a name for themselves against everyone’s advice.”

        1. On the ability of women to carry heavy loads…

          My book “Mechanics of pre-industrial technology” table 8.1 gives carrying capacity for 18th C and 19th C working men. A London porter carries 90kg / 198 pound loads with a peak load of 150 kg / 330 pounds. All day, although the return trip is empty. A sedan chair hauler carries 70 kg / 154 pounds all day, a brick carrier 50 kg / 110 pounds all day.

          The quote from Women at War is not clear whether the “50 or 60 pounds” (28 kg) includes the children and firewood. Even if not, the men carry more on average and in exceptional cases.

          Here in the 21st C, Safe Work Australia “Hazardous manual tasks Code of Practice” is supposed to cover all workplace tasks that involve lifting, pushing, carrying, etc. Note that “Hazardous” is being used here in the sense of “potential cause of injury or medical condition” and thus applies to all such tasks, not just those we think of as being particularly dangerous.

          According to this Australian code of practice, pregnancy increases the chance of back injury. It is considered a risk factor equivalent to being under-age, elderly, or recovering from recent injury.

          Ancient and medieval societies don’t have great health care or rapid transport for medical emergencies. Keeping women out of such work is often – not always – a heuristic to prevent injuries.

          I hope this does not seem dismissive, and thanks for your contributions to this discussion.

          1. I appreciate that you don’t mean to be dismissive, but how is the quote NOT clear? “To say nothing of” literally means “IN ADDITION TO,” as stated in The Free Dictionary ( That man has a 99% chance of meaning, “these women carried fifty pounds of kit, AS WELL AS a gaggle of children, and some had a small dog, who they ALSO carried in bad weather.”

            If people REALLY can’t believe that these women couldn’t have carried more than fifty/sixty pounds, when my short ass can carry fifty pounds with no FORMAL exercise regimen besides “enjoying walks several times a week, and being able-bodied,” I can do some more intense guesstimates at how heavy the man’s list of “supplies carried by camp women” might be.

            FIRST LOAD: Children. I was generous and decided on a newly weaned one-year-old for the child, at 19-20lbs, so the camp-wife at least won’t have to breastfeed them AND change their diapers. Even if you take out a few pounds for poorer medieval nutrition, three triplets of the same age (unlikely to all survive in the 1600s, AND unlikely to be brought by their father on a war-march!) would be 40-50lbs combined. Add more weight for children who CAN walk, but may not WANT to for all sorts of reasons, so they throw a tantrum and then get tossed onto a hip for about ten or fifteen minutes, because that’s the only way to keep them quiet.

            SECOND LOAD: The “small dog.” The most likely types are lap-dogs or terriers, both very old breeds. Barring modern toy dogs who are REALLY small, a terrier or lap-dog is usually 7-14lbs.

            We now have 7-64lbs for the camp-wife who has anywhere from one to FOUR small-and-dependent creatures to take care of, plus her husband.

            You’d have to be VERY generous to interpret the quote as “a mixed cargo of children, a pet, AND the camp supplies, totaling 50-60lbs.” Pots, tents, and clothing aren’t just heavy, they’re BULKY. Even if you’re a master packer, and if you juggle the kids in shifts so you’re not literally carrying all three at once, people don’t have a lot of ROOM to load cargo on themselves.

            CAMP GEAR 1: A reenactment / LARP tent for a Viking is listed at 50lbs of canvas and poles. ( ) This may vary from 30-50lbs: The shipping weight is probably skewed by how “the TENT POLES fit in a 50lb cargo box,” so this may not be the actual “put it on a scale” weight.

            CAMP GEAR 2: Food and cookware! A cast-iron pot on this LARP supplies website is 5lbs ( ), so a flat pan is around 3lbs. Spoons are negligible, maybe 1lb for “one or two cooking spoons,” plus any cutlery for eating. Most people need 3-5lbs of food per day, so two people need 6-10lbs; this means a childless couple has ~15-19lbs of food and cookware. I’d guess 2lbs of food each for the dog and children, at 2-8lbs more food for families.

            If the man meant “a mixed load of supplies, children, and a dog that totaled 50-60lbs,” he’d stop at the tent or the food. While both ARE important in a war, he wouldn’t have said ANYTHING else in his excruciatingly itemized list, if he hadn’t seen these women carrying it. (Or most likely, loading/unloading it on their breaks.)

            On to…

            CAMP GEAR 3: Clothes and fabric. I’m glossing that list of clothes over to “one and a half spare outfits per adult, since you’re wearing one outfit already.” With most outfits being 3-4lbs, 1.5 outfits for two adults would be 4.5-6lbs of clothing. “One sheet” is most likely a blanket, and quilting wool is 6-8oz per yard with two layers, so most queen-size quilts of 2-3 yards square would be 2-4lbs for two adults. An overcoat for a 6-foot-tall man would preferably be 10-18oz per yard in wool, so “4 yards x 10-18oz = 40-72oz, or 2.5-4.5lbs. This couple needs 9-14lbs in clothing and bedding; the children probably need another 2-3lbs of extra clothes and bedding, so that adds ~2-9lbs more fabric for a family.

            That means the weight carried by a childless soldier’s wife is ~54-83.5lbs, while a family loads her with a whopping ~58-100lbs… BEFORE carrying the children and the dog when they can’t walk, or gathering firewood to cook.

            The anonymous man is right to say, “at least fifty/sixty pounds of supplies for a given woman, plus any kids and pets.”

            Since the “wood and straw” in the quote is explicitly NOT firewood, or else they wouldn’t have needed to say that the camp-wife gathered it, I’m guessing it’s lumber for other needs?

            Speaking of food, campers say you need 20-40 pounds of wood for a cooking fire that lasts an hour or two. Another half/full-load of “camp supplies?” Ouch. ( )

          2. Replying to Jamie’s reply, but seem to have reached the nesting limit. So…

            The quote in the Women at War article begins “Seldom is one found who does not carry at least 50 or 60 pounds.” Full stop. Then there’s some elided text before the actual items get listed, and no weights are given. My reading is that the only hard number is stated as a total.

            However, I agree with you that the items listed definitely add up to more than 60 pounds, so the true total would be higher.

            I’m really not sure what point the rest of us keep dismissing. You say that women can carry heavy loads. I don’t deny it. No doubt there are people elsewhere on the Internet who do, but I haven’t seen anyone else do so on this blog.

            I, and others in less detail, are saying that men (on average, overlapping bell curves) can carry heavier loads, and with less risk of injury.

            Turns out the Australian Defence Force has been studying this issue, and there is a paper “Gender differences in load carry injuries of Australian Army soldiers” freely available online.

            TL;DR: with the same loads of up to 45 kg marching, not in combat just marching long distances, the women are 2.4 more times as likely to get serious personal injuries than men.

            The paper, and another “Load Carry Capacity of the Dismounted Combatant” seem to say that the major difference is just mass and height. Turns out those 2m 150 kg bears are really good at carrying stuff over long distances.

            One way for women to avoid injury is to march slower. Which is an operational disadvantage, as Prof Devereaux points out in the main article good generals want to move fast.

            Another, which IIRC you’ve suggested, is to lower the load. I know there are stereotypes of army training drills where recruits have to carry bags of rocks or other useless junk, but in actual combat those 45 kg loads are useful stuff. Reducing the load for women would mean less body armour, less ammunition, less first aid gear, less communications gear. Reducing the load would get more women killed.

          3. It’s hard to me to actually pin down WHY things feel dismissive, because it’s not like people are saying “your stuff is wrong and you should feel bad,” but here’s the gist of it:

            Two people said “the camp-women wouldn’t be carrying the kids on top of their actual load! Kids can walk!” when… the Anonymous man literally said camp-wives were carrying their children, plus their cargo. Even if it wasn’t the whole day through, they DID. Who else would? Their fathers, who are both soldiers and probably wouldn’t be socialized to carry the children?

            Even today, a lot of men don’t think to carry their own children because that’s “their mother’s job,” not realizing how heavy a given child IS, and yet they get concerned when she lifts a 20lb sack or moves a table, because “women shouldn’t be lifting heavy things!”

            Meanwhile, the tangent about women’s biology and how “well, women CAN carry heavy loads and march as long as men, but not if they want to stay healthy! Medieval times didn’t care about women’s health like we do!” rings fairly hollow when women’s health is still routinely ignored today, and not just for recent high-profile issues like abortion. Have we made a lot of great strides in medicine? Yes, but women are still frequently misdiagnosed, ill-treated, or told to toughen up or be less sensitive/anxious.

            But somehow when the conversation is about women joining the military, people suddenly do a 180 and become concerned about “IT’S NOT HEALTHY FOR WOMEN TO DO X, Y, AND Z!” Or “THE STRAIN OF COMBAT/TRAINING IS ALREADY HARD ON MEN, SO IT’S GOING TO BE *REALLY* HARD ON WOMEN.”

            Honestly, if women can do OTHER ill-advised and unhealthy jobs like manual labor or restaurant work, why not combat?

        2. That last part often makes modern male combatants gripe about how “we can’t just lower army standards for WOMEN to fight! THEY’RE GOING TO BE LIABILITIES!”, but that rings very hollow to me, considering that there’s many cases throughout history of teenage boys and elderly/disabled men enlisting of their own will.

          Even teenage boys are often stronger and faster than grown women. See, e.g.,

          1. Yes, I have read the reminders about “as a whole, men are stronger and faster than women!”, but the social point that everyone seems to keep missing about “Why SHOULDN’T women be in combat, if we let unfit men and boys into the force?” is that the main problems people seem to HAVE with letting women into infantry/front-line combat are arbitrary and weird.

            Discounting emergency drafts where commanders explicitly need bodies on the field and don’t care about fitness/age, teenagers and unfit men often enlist and lie about what they can’t do, and you know how most people treat them? They largely ignore physical limitations by going, “BUT THEY HAVE THE WILLPOWER! THAT’S IMPORTANT, TOO!”

            But when prime-aged and healthy women start talking about how they ALSO want to enlist, despite many not being able to meet the full army standards, people start going on about “women can’t do as much as men, they might be liabilities in combat!” or bringing out the weighing scales about how “a soldier’s kit weighs X-many pounds! Is that even HEALTHY for women to carry all day???” Like, I thought willpower was also important for serving in combat?

            Meanwhile, if we keep physical training the same, people ALSO worry about how “only a quarter or a third or [insert small percentage of women] can actually MEET THE ARMY STANDARDS if we don’t lower them! We might as well not let women on the front at all!” Which sounds simultaneously privileged AND defeatist at the same time to me, but that’s getting into “why are people so damn resistant to social change?” instead of army/logistics matters.

          2. “Why SHOULDN’T women be in combat, if we let unfit men and boys into the force?”

            We don’t. Soldiers have to pass a fitness test before they’re allowed to fight, and cases of minors lying about their age to join (a) uniformly involve teenagers just a couple of years below the legal enlistment age, by which time they’re already stronger and faster than most grown women, and (b) involve minors lying about their age *because we don’t actually allow people their age to join and would reject them if they told the truth*.

    3. We could approach this issue from the other direction. We would normally consider those 2 meter, 150 kg bears as great military asset, but if they get wounded who would carry them to safety? They start to sound like a huge liability for an army. The conclusion is that you should only allow soldiers between 175-185 cm, 80-100 kg, and who can carry at least 100kg in your infantry.

      There would be clear use for women in the army. You could make the tanks smaller and better armored if you designed them for 160 cm soldiers.

      But what to do with the XXL soldiers? Maybe there could be a place for them in the logistics train, unless forklifts and Boston Dynamics robodogs do the work better.

      1. I’ve heard that fighter pilots tend to be small, but I looked it up just now and they can be as tall as 6′ 6″! (Which comes to 198 cm.)

        1. What I’ve read is that smaller bodies are better able to withstand high g-forces, so in theory there should be more fighter pilots sized like Tom Cruise. But it’s not as if modern militaries are perfect meritocracies, and perhaps the advantage isn’t great enough to matter.

      2. “We would normally consider those 2 meter, 150 kg bears as great military asset, but if they get wounded who would carry them to safety?”

        Each other.

        Although some years ago I came across an article that claimed the British Army brass was worried that their footsoldiers were picking up an enthusiasm for lifting weights from their American opposite numbers, and were unhappy about that. Their ideal soldier was a thin wiry guy with a lot of endurance, not an NFL player with a lot of power.

      3. Soldier’s builds obviously vary, but most combatants tend to agree that “too big and burly is only good for Hollywood/propaganda/romances, and regular guys can do just fine in combat.”

        More weight/muscle means you eat more food, especially after combat, and it also wears you out faster for loaded marches, so anyone with a linebacker/rugby-player build will usually be doing a lot worse than an average-built guy after several weeks of combat.

        As for the medieval nobility, people are often asking “what was the ideal body-type for a knight?” and it seems they also preferred “average but athletic” knights instead of huge brick-house types. Partly because knights were ideally MOUNTED combatants, and horses had weight-limits themselves. The modernness of “horse breeds” aside, most knights wouldn’t be caught dead on a muscle-bound Shire or another draft-horse, because that’s a slow and ungainly FARM-HORSE, not a warhorse like an old-style Andalusian.

        In some regions, people actively advised against noblemen getting too burly, or else they’d start looking like a farmer or a blacksmith who actually needs their muscles to WORK, and all that common-born ickiness. Very interesting reversal of how many modern folks view people with good muscles to have the free time to go to the gym, instead of being chained to a desk. (Although most people have limits and don’t ACTUALLY like excessive body-builder muscles; physically, too many muscles means someone will lose their ability to do regular house-work, or the person might get seen as too vain to do ANYTHING but go to the gym.)

  25. My hopelessly vague question is “What happens to the camp followers when the army they are following loses badly?”

    (Obviously if you cover all of human history the answer is “It depends.”)

    If the army remains coherent enough to retreat, the camp followers just go along, I assume.

    But if it doesn’t, what happens? Some will be murdered, robbed, or enslaved. Others would run away as fast as they can manage.

    But how commonly would they just ‘switch sides’ and become camp followers for the winning army? Which could lead to conflict with the winning army’s existing camp followers, of course.

    1. Very bad things. Armies tend to consider the entire ‘campaign community’ (I love that term) of the enemy to be enemies and deal with them accordingly. For unarmed non-combatants, especially women, that is very bad.

      Defend the camp if possible, retreat with the army if not, vanish into the countryside and pray you are on your home turf if necessary.

      1. I do note that a lot of the the times it was less some kind of animus, and more simply that the enemy camp was full of valuables (including food, money (even if the soldiers had spent them, they’d probably still be in the sutler’s hands! and in the case of a slaving army like the romans, the camp followers themselves, who could be handily enslaved and sold.

    2. There was a medieval Irish law against camp followers, admittedly during raids, that was clearly aimed at discouraging warfare by depriving the raiders of feminine companionship, but also at preventing these women from being part of the spoils if the raid lost.

  26. I’m curious how much of a pre agrarian nations budget was committed to these war efforts. Was 70 tons of food a lot to produce in antiquity? I’m not really sure what scale to put that in. Like how many miles of farms land would it take to produce that food? Or what percentage of Rome’s food budget was put into these armies?

    1. So a bit of googling got me a rough estimate of 200kg of food per acre for a British Medieval farm. There’s probably some significant variation based on era and locality, but using that as an order of magnitude calculation: 70 x 0.2 x 365 = 5,100 acres of farmland to support an army for a year.

      Now that’s farmland who’s output is solely dedicated to supplying the army. That never happens in reality, and the majority (I’ll use 90% for calculations but I think it might be more like 95% to 98%) is used to feed the farmers. So, you at least another order or magnitude on that value, if not two. So 51,000 acres is probably the lowest amount of land you’ll need, but I wouldn’t be surprised by 200,000 acres in some localities depending on the richness of the land.

      That’s about 200 to 1,000 km^2 of land that’s don’t nothing but supporting the military formation. You then have to support all the people who make their weapons, train the horses, built the carts, etc, which are probably eating just as much if not more.

      I have no idea how much land Roman Italy would have under cultivation, but currently they have about 120,000 km with modern technology. Of that, our model Army would be fully utilising a minimum of 0.1% to maybe as much as 1%.

      So feeding, training and equipping 20,000 men is consuming some tenths of a percentage point of the Roman Republic’s GDP, with pretty wide error bars that cover that entire magnitude.

      1. Which would fit in with the aphorism that a society can only permanently support an army comprising 1% of the total population.

      2. Some of those farmers would also be hiding part of their output from the state, which adds to the inefficiency. James Scott discusses this tension between militaristic states squeezing farmers for agricultural surplus to feed the army and farmers doing what they can to retain it in Seeing Like a State.

      3. I wonder to what extent Roman army food logistics was premised on the purchase in bulk of grain raised on large estates by an enslaved work force. Also, there were the large grain shipments from Egypt–my vague notion is that most or all of that went to the free bread allowance though.

  27. A wonderful post, which really starts digging into all the little ‘How, though’ questions that previous logistics-centered posts have raised for me. Look forward to reading the rest of the series.

    A question regarding the breakdown of troops types in Footnote 8; why is it the Romans of this period (and later) rely so heavily on allies and auxiliaries for cavalry in particular?

        1. Well of course before stirrups were introduced even the best cavalry sucked compared to later times. Was the Italian peninsula a poor place geographically for cavalry to operate, or did medieval/renaissance cavalry do better there?

          1. Stirrups are often over-rated. The Scythians were deadly steppe horse archers without them, the Macedonian Companions were effective shock cavalry, the Celtic shock cavalry replaced chariots. (And as our host notes, Gallic cavalry were highly regarded by Caesar.)

            In western Europe the introduction of stirrups happens at the same time as the social structure changes to favour noble cavalry, “knights”, over infantry. So it looks like cause and effect.

            But if you look at say China they didn’t undergo the same transformation, nor did India. Even in western Europe the Brits stayed an infantry army until after the Norman conquest, despite having stirrups themselves.

            Stirrups do help, which is why they quickly become universal, but cavalry without them are still very effective.

          2. I’ve seen a theory that the main reason why stirrups were adopted was that they made it easier to get on and off a horse, rather than any benefit once you’re already mounted.

          3. The classic reason I’ve always read is the foundation myth of the medieval knight: that supposedly it allowed a lancer to transfer the momentum of a charging horse into the lance; this leading to being able to “blast through” shield walls. From Bret’s articles and comments on same I presume this is at least somewhat exaggerated.

        2. Maybe because if you’re a Roman “equestrian” you still have to spend most of your time in the city of Rome, because that’s where all the political action is? Not many opportunities to practice your horsemanship.

          Most good cavalry are also rural types, who spend a lot of peace time riding around and doing things like hunting from horseback to build up skills.

          1. Equestrians were generally more engaged in trade than politics, at least by the second century. Though that might also provide an explanation for why the Romans stopped using them as cavalry — perhaps it was more beneficial for the Roman state to have the equestrians generating wealth through trade than to draft them into the army, particularly since they could now hire non-Roman auxiliaries to do that job instead.

        3. They seem to have performed well enough during the early Republic (though granted we don’t have as detailed a history of this period). I think their reputation for uselessness mostly comes from the Second Punic War, when they were regularly trounced by Hannibal, but to be fair Hannibal was one of the greatest generals in history leading one of the best armies in history. As for why the Romans stopped using them, I’m not sure whether it was that the Roman cavalry, whilst good enough by Italian standards, were inferior to their Hellenistic counterparts, or whether it was just that social or political factors meant that there were better uses for Rome’s wealthy citizens than fighting as common soldiers.

  28. The interesting question I had at the end of this was, “What’s the range of that army consuming 61 metric tons of food daily? So I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation using Prof. Devereaux’s numbers.

    19,200 soldiers @ 10 kg carrying capacity
    4,000 noncombatants @ 10 kg carrying capacity
    5,000 mules @ 130 kg carrying capacity
    4,800 horses @ 20 kg carrying capacity

    (Those numbers are food-carrying only, and there are a lot of assumptions baked into them.)

    That works out to 978 metric tons of carrying capacity, which is 16 days at 61 tons per day. So, you’re capable of about an 8 day lunge. At 20 km (13 miles) per day, you’re looking at an operational range of about 160 km, or 100 miles. Which I can drive in about an hour and a half.

    I think that’s a good rough order of magnitude estimate. Really efficient armies can maybe make 10 days on the march, maybe 12 on the outside. Inefficient ones with a lot of camp followers are going to be restricted to 6 days.

    Logistics are important.

    1. I’d note that if you can carry sixteen days worth of food, you actually can potentially march for sixteen days out. You’re presumably going somewhere like a town, so if you win the battle and take the town you can loot it for food in addition to everything else you’re looting it for. Or if you’re going to be marching seawards you can have ships meet you there.

      Of course, that’d put you on a pretty tight timer to attack and win.

      1. You also had to drill your men to conserve their food. Shiloh had Confederates who had not been so drilled, who had received five days’ rations, and who had taken two days longer than expected to reach the Union forces. They fell apart, often enough, at the Union camps, to get the food.

      2. Unless you fail to take the town, in which case you’re screwed. Something like this happened to the Germans at Stalingrad. They were reliant on a single rail line and trucks for the last 200 kms, so at the end of their logistics tether. They had to pulse offensives in the city – which they needed both for rail control and shelter. This gave the Red Army time to reinforce and dig in in the intervals. At the end, both sides were fought out in the city, but the Germans had no fuel and little food when surrounded.

      3. Relying on the enemy’s food supplies to be there when you arrive exposes you to a lot of bad luck. If your army collapses because some jerk decided to set fire to the town granary as a gesture of defiance to the enemy, it’d be just too bad.

      4. That’s the kind of tricksy thing that either gets you a surprise win and a note as Great General in the history books, or destroys your army and your reputation.

        1. I think a giant amount of historical assessments of generals who had one or two major actions comes down to whether their calculated gambles paid off or not.

  29. Was joining the army financially a bad deal for the soldiers? It seems like they are expected to supplement their rations by buying their own food with their salaries. Some armies also seem to deduct the cost of their equipments from their pay. Some armies don’t even get paid at all, or get a smaller amount than initially promised.

    I can imagine in times of food scarcity some soldiers spend all their pay on food, or something.

    1. Many soldiers joined for the opportunity to loot. They might think the costs are worth the chance to get rich quick.

  30. The massive figures of armies make me wonder about two cases – Napoleon’s Corps d’Armée and Stonewall Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry.” Both were known for a very high level of operational mobility, and could do long-range maneuvers while acting independently in both command and supply.

    And I wonder how both get supplied while moving much faster than their opponents. A Napoleonic French crops usually numbered 20000-30000 men; while Jackson commanded about 15000 men during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

    (I know Jackson belonged to the railroad era, but he did not seem to use much rail movement during the Valley Campaign, not to say Shenandoah Valley at the time did not have a developed rail network to begin with.)

    1. Jackson’s War of the Rebellion was extremely local, including family of the army living there, supportive and not hostile. It’s the Army of Virginia.

      But already, food was getting scarce for everyone in the slaveocracy — food riots by the wives and families of the non-slaveholding families in Richmond and elsewhere. Yet it was still so early in the War of the Rebellion (1862) that nobody in the CSA was worried. They were on the top and winning. Even at the end when what was left of the Army of Virginia, they still had weapons and ammo. There just was no food — for anybody — or anything else. Which is part of the strategy of Lee going to Gettysburg, like the Army of Virginia had been doing in the war all along in summer — to raid and pillage Pennsylvania for food and other supplies, and also to act like warlords and mercenaries, holding towns to ransom — not to mention grabbing every African American the soldiers saw, and dragging them back down to sell into slavery.

      This campaign is nothing at all like moving 20,000 30,000 men armies across the vast stretches that the Napoleonic era armies had to cover, even though the terrain wasn’t that well mapped, and rigorous. Virginia may well have considered itself the real USA, but the USA was far vaster than that. Jackson stayed in VA. So unlike armies that have to leave home to engage the enemy.

      This is nothing at all like Darius going from Persepolis to Greece, Caesar in Gaul, the Ottomans taking an army from Istanbul to Vienna, or Napoleon even, going to Italy.

      1. Thank you for the detailed response – and I guess the only wonder for me now is how Napoleon fed his army and kept the moving speed even in hostile territory.

    2. The American Civil War is right on the cusp of the railroad era – for the most part, the North fought much more as a railroad army than the South, but as fighting moved farther away from the dense Northern railway network logistics turned a lot more pre-modern and river-bound.

        1. Steamboats helped make river transport even better, but river transport with no steam engines is more than good enough to support very large armies. The problem, of course, is that your army cannot move far from the river.

          For the siege of Petersburg, which was the longest period of time the Army of the Potomac ever spent in one place during combat operations, General Grant had a large dedicated port facility set up at City Point along the James River so ships could bring in supplies. But things like that only worked because the army was going to be “parked” in one place for a long time, conveniently close to a river that led down to a body of water firmly under Union control.

    3. Most cavalry on a march do not usually move FASTER than men (usually 15-20 miles in a day), especially if you don’t want the horses and riders exhausted at the end of it. Horses are already notorious for eating a lot, and tired horses eat MORE.

      Horses usually walk/trot at the pace of humans, and any travelers going faster would usually be scouts checking a few miles ahead to make sure the road is safe/passable and then returning to camp, or smaller parties making an emergency run (say, to take care of an enemy if the road is NOT safe, or sending a message about hostile parties to allies).

      1. Cavalry do not move faster on the march, but they can “lunge” faster than infantry for short-ish distances if needs be.

        Another point (which will probably be brought up) is that while cavalry increased the amount of fodder you needed, it also increased the foraging range by quite a bit.

      2. European cavalry, sure. Nomad and other all-cavalry armies could move faster, because they had 3-5 horses per rider, with discarded horses collected by the supply train (sheep and cattle) coming along behind.

        1. Also nomads’ ponies could survive entirely off forage, meaning you needed less food. Agrarian cavalry needs some amount of grains in their diet because they’re bred to be bigger and heavier. If some portion of your army doesn’t need to be fed that changes the logistical picture quite a bit!

          1. Indeed as Bret has noted, Mongolian ponies were a net SUPPLIER of food, because they could produce a surplus of milk- provided the forage didn’t run out.

          2. One thing I wonder about this is how the forage worked on the more extreme “Mongols could move [bignum] kilometers per day when they had to” figures. You have to allow some time stop and eat the grass.

          3. Horses sleep a lot less than humans, so they can spend several hours grazing every night.

  31. The picture of armies at the end is of a vast swarm of locusts, stripping the land bare of food as they pass by like a force of nature.

    Though if armies march on their stomachs, wouldn’t that make them gastropods…?

  32. > some of the things included (particularly the 1.6oz of coffee) were hardly minimum necessities

    Indeed. That’s about what I get through a day – I’d say minimum necessity is about half of that 😉

  33. I absolutely love the “tyranny of the wagon equation” analogy – but also in the other direction, in helping people with more of a grounding in military logistics understand the mind-boggling expense and difficulty of doing anything outside of Low Earth Orbit.

    1. Not really though, getting payloads to LEO is by far the hardest part. IE, getting 1kg to LEO is harder than getting 1kg from LEO to the Moon and back.

      1. Indeed, the plan for SpaceX’s Starship is that once the upper stage in orbit is fully refueled, it can then do a complete round trip to the surface of the moon and back, or a one-way landing on Mars. Robert Heinlein coined the aphorism “once you’re in orbit you’re halfway to anywhere”.

      2. The problem is that fuel for beyond-LEO operations is part of the payload you need to get to LEO. It’s an exponential increase in fuel required at launch, with the big up-front leap to LEO just making things worse by starting you way out on the exponential curve.

  34. > Adult men need anywhere from 2,000 to 3,200 calories per day in order to support their activity;

    This should be kilocalories, a difference of three orders of magnitude.

    Other thoughts:

    * The best way to carry nutrients as a food soldier is probably in the form of body fat. A kilogram of body fat provides (apprarently) 9kcal, equivalent to carrying about three kg of wheat.

    * Why should wagon/mule drivers not be soldiers? I would have assumed that armies generally have two modes: marching (with 45kg load or whatever) and battle (leaving their personal belongings, food reserves, camping equipment etc in the camp). Just have them leave their wagons in camp before they go to battle.

    * The importance of water might make tainting water sources in low-water environments like deserts an effective area denial strategy. Probably not very popular with the local population, though.

    * What are the logistics of having herds of animals for slaughter? Obviously, there won’t be enough grazing opportunities for the amount of animals needed to feed a huge army, so every cow, sheep and goat will slowly starve as the campaign goes on. While meat is more costly than grain in agricultural societies, warfare was always a major sink of wealth. So how far could you drive a goat before it drops dead, and how much nutrition might it provide at that point?

    * For that matter, the oxen or horses pulling the grain cart will not be required any more as soon as the cart is empty. Assuming two oxen of 250kg each for a 1000kg grain cart, they might provide a nontrivial amount of nutrition beyond the grain.

    * As fantasy settings are sometimes discussed here, what about cannibalism (disregarding the disease issues)? In the march-then-battle model, the nutrition bottleneck is obviously before the battle, so this would not change much (civilians will not stick around in the way of the army to be eaten, and slaughtering the humanoids within your own army for food is certainly less efficient than using other animals instead), but for longer or asymmetrical campaigns, a battlefield may be a good nutritional opportunity. For a non-cannibalistic alternative, horses killed in battle may also be considered.

    Of course, non of the last three points is a game changer with regard to the rocket equation in the same way the railroad is.

    1. Outside of chemistry, the term “calorie” normally refers to what chemists would call the kcal (and even in chemistry, the joule is the more common unit). A strange naming convention for sure but our host is not wrong to use the term “calorie” to refer to what is also known as the “food calorie”, especially given the context here. But I appreciate the pedantry.

      1. “Calorie” should properly be capitalized when referring to the “food calorie” or kcal – so no, using “calorie” where what is clearly meant is “Calorie” is incorrect. (Adult males would starve on 3,200 “calories” a day.) I agree we’ve ended up with an absurd naming convention, but that’s exactly why it’s important to be precise about it.

        1. I don’t disagree that people have tried to standardize the language with upper-case and lower-case calories to resolve this confusing part of our language but they have never caught on with consistency–as the Wikipedia article on calories points out, even leading institutions on nutritional calories like the FDA and UK National Health Service both use the lower-case in their articles.

    2. > The best way to carry nutrients as a food soldier is probably in the form of body fat.

      I’m assuming that was a typo for “foot soldier”, but in the context it conjures up images equal parts hilarious and disturbing.

    3. Why don’t your soldiers drive the mules / wagons? I can think of two reasons.

      First reason is that it’s another set of skills you have to train your soldiers in. Diana Wynne Jones wrote a great book “The Tough Guide to Fantasyland” about clichés, one of which is that fantasy authors tend to treat horses as bicycles. Looking after mules or horses or oxen, and all their harness, and horseshoes, and specific feeding requirements, and the best way to coax an upset horse back into moving, is skilled work! I imagine that’s also true for efficiently loading and unloading pack animals or transport.

      Second reason is that an army on the march needs to be able to defend itself. Have a look at the diagrams in Part II of the Helm’s Deep series:

      Infantry marching in a narrow column just need to left or right turn to form a line of battle. They’re probably wearing some or all of their armour, carrying some or all of their weapons. So if you see a potential enemy force approaching, it’s really easy to put a defensive formation between them and your valuable baggage.

      If your infantry are also driving the wagons or mules, you can’t quickly get into any kind of combat formation. (Yeah, Hussites and other people who always fought in wagons would be a special case.) Nor you can do useful things like having infantry detachments guarding the front and rear while your baggage crosses a river or other natural chokepoint where they are exceptionally vulnerable to attack.

    4. If you eat the oxen or horses pulling an empty cart, you also have to abandon the cart. These are pre-industrial societies which can’t afford to throw away valuable resources. Horses themselves are expensive and valuable!

      And unless you’re a total pessimist, you expect to be able to get more food (or loot) in the near future and thus will need transport again.

      Not to say it wasn’t done, but only in desperate circumstances, not something you would plan for.

    5. >The best way to carry nutrients as a foot soldier is probably in the form of body fat.
      Yes, but getting fat was easier said than done in pre-industrial times. That kilo of body fat may contain as many calories as three kilos of grain, but you-the-soldier would have to eat rather more than three kilos of extra grain over and above daily requirements to put on a kilo of body weight. Which means that someone has to be delivering that extra food to you during times when the army is not on campaign. And in a society where most people are subsistence farmers, those extra rations are hard to come by and expensive. So in effect, this was true but unhelpful. Soldiers rarely put on much extra weight, though any fat on their bodies would assuredly get burned off during a campaign!

      >The importance of water might make tainting water sources in low-water environments like deserts an effective area denial strategy.
      Such things were not unheard of.

      1. The Prince of Nothing series was excellent about weaving in logistics as an essential aspect of warfare. It had a particularly vivid example of how devastating poisoning wells in dry areas can be as a tactic.

  35. Wellington certainly fed his army with bullocks driven from Lisbon or other ports. In any event, supply usually has two modes: an advance into hostile territory, where the aim is to go for a point you can siege or seize within a shortish range (say 10 days haul), establish yourself and then go on (a lot of medieval warfare is like this); or a longer range thrust where you can arrange for food to be available along the way. this latter might involve an advance party promising money if food is brought to some location (usually combined with threats), or just threats, or, at worst, marching through rich countryside after the harvest (the soldiers will often spoil so much that you can’t return the same way). Marlborough used the first going to Blenheim, Napoleon the last in Russia.

  36. In the “photograph from 1862 showing a woman along with a soldier” I note a couple of things. One, the woman is standing behind what looks like a basket of laundry. Possibly she was being a laundress as well as accompanying a soldier.

    Second, the man is not carrying any weapons. In his hands is a bow saw[1] and leaning against his waist is what looks pretty much like a peavey or cant-hook[2]. Both are logging tools, so at least at the moment of the photograph he was acting as a woodman or lumberman, not a soldier. It could be, despite his uniform, that both were part of the support community?



    1. Nobody in that army at that time would be in uniform without being a soldier. However, soldiers in the Union Army performed a good deal of manual labor themselves, including tasks like cutting firewood. Also, soldiers had civilian lives they had come from and would go back to; it would hardly be unusual for a soldier to have experience as a carpenter and to perform any woodworking tasks that were needed.

  37. I enjoy your blog so much!
    Something you might find (anecdotally) interesting: pan de munición does not exactly translate as “ration bread”, but as “ammunition bread”. It’s still correct in Spain to talk about “munición de boca” (provisions) and “munición de fuego” (ammunition); in fact, those were the terms the Spanish army still used back in the 1980’s, much to the amazement of my fellow conscripts. I don’t know if they still use them.

    1. I imagine there are even more jokes in Spanish-speaking armies than in English-speaking ones, then, about the quality of the food being so low that firing it at the enemy would be a better use than eating it… 😀

  38. It seems like this leaves a lot of wiggle room to change the result if you can change the “payload”, rather than the fuel. If we start at the beginning and keep things simple, we’ve got one infantryman, carrying roughly 40kg of gear and 10kg of food, with the food lasting 10 days. I would imagine a lot of use for light infantry, flying columns, etc, who can function with less gear. Carry 30kg of gear instead of 40, that lets you carry twice the food and march twice as far. That seems easily doable if you’re in a warm climate (like the Mediterranean) and fighting a less intensive war (fighting “barbarians” rather than a peer state). And if the army is small and you can promise they’ll return home before long, it seems like they can leave all the camp followers at home. Would they really mutiny if they have to do their own laundry for 20 days?

    1. Have you ever done a FULL load of laundry by hand, not just the odd fragile item or some easy-to-wash delicates? And are you going to ask soldiers to do that after a whole day of walking and then setting up camp? And in the event of “washing clothes after battle,” do you know how HARD IT IS to get blood and heavy soiling out? There’s a reason laundry-day used to be a literal DAY, because that’s how long it used to take to get an average family’s clothes and bed-linens clean.

      Gender and class issues aside, where most preindustrial males would refuse doing their laundry as “unmanly” and OTHER preindustrial European males would just refuse it as “peasant’s work,” washing clothes by hand sucks. It’s exhausting, which soldiers would almost certainly protest, and it’s also infamous for wrecking your hands without a LOT of moisturizer to keep them from cracking and peeling, which most soldiers need to fight.

      You asked if the soldiers would mutiny if they did their own laundry, but without the convenience of modern washers and dryers, they almost certainly would.

      This is why trying to get rid of camp-followers was so hard, because they may have been eating up food and needing protection, but they were ALSO lightening the load with doing necessary non-combat tasks.

      1. The Navy was famous for doing its own laundry (on a ;make and mend day’). Denis Healey writes of how the Sheffield neighbours were intrigued by the ex-Navy petty officer who washed his family’s laundry himself – right there were everyone could see!

        1. Which navy are you talking about? I’m thinking England since you mentioned Sheffield, but a link would be fascinating.

          Also, I imagine most sailors would need to do their own laundry, since you can’t fit all of a crew’s families on a ship.

          1. The Royal Navy. Sailors were known for being able to do a lot of what, by land, would be woman’s tasks – laundry, sewing, cleaning.

      2. Yep, doing laundry is hard enough: Doign so on the move (heating water, etc.) is a massive effort. (which is probably part of why soldiers were notoriously dirty…) it’s hard work.

      3. Mark Girouard Life in the English Country House

        He discusses the original castle staff was a garrison and so, barring the lord’s lady and her immediate attendants, everyone down to the scullions was male — EXCEPT for the laundresses.

        1. It’s interesting that this particular task was so gendered. Gendered divisions of labor often reflect biological factors: tasks that require upper body strength, like chopping wood or blacksmithing, are given to males, while tasks that require digital dexterity or that can be easily combined with watching small children–as was noted in the previous discussion of spinning–are given to females. But it’s hard to see laundry as playing strongly to unique female skills or situations.

          1. Maybe laundry also involved repairing clothes; sewing was feminine.

          2. Did women in premodern times need laundered clothes more than men did, for hygienic reasons? So it was something they’d be set up to do anyway?

          3. To Michael Alan Hutson: Technically, menstruation doesn’t involve so much blood that women would be washing pads/clothes every day of it (and if you ARE bleeding that much, something’s wrong and you need to see whatever doctor-analog you have).

            I agree that laundry took on a gendered role because it involves washing clothes and other textiles, and most likely you’d be fixing them, so that’s probably why the women did it.

    2. You can do that kind of thing for quick “lunges” (and usually then have the camp followers meet up later) but that’s a risky, risky thing: If you miscalculate you’re stuck up shit creek without a paddle, and you’re working on VERY thin marigins. It’s one of those things a canny commander can use to get a surprise win by being somewhere he isn’t expected to be early on, but also the kind of thing that can absolutely destroy an army because they end up somewhere without the support they need to function.

  39. Indian armies had a solution I don’t think was applied anywhere else – the bullock train. North India before the railways was stitched together by enormous bullock trains – often a hundred or more carts – moving huge loads over great distances. Slowly – 2 kms an hour, but 3 tons or more load per cart. They regularly carried bulk cargoes. Bullocks will pull steadily, can be yoked in large teams, and need only poor forage (they were used extensively in Australia to haul wool and wheat loads of 5-7 tons – the last were still going in the 30s). An Indian army thus had very long range, so long as it did not go too fast – eg Aurangzeb’s campaigns in the Deccan.

    1. Maratha armies also had the wonderful Marwari warhorses, who had been bred for, among other traits, needing far less water and forage than other horses over long distances. They had bred some native equine stock with Arabian stock. The Maratha kings’ regions included extensive desert and other infertile, dry parts.

      Camels were good too, wherever forage and water were scarce. The US army tried them, with little or no success in the Southwest in the post War of the Rebellion era.

      1. Actually, the project was started before the war, one of the big backers was a certain someone named Jefferson Davis, him being you know… head traitor in chief was a big reason why the project lost support.

      2. They were also introduced to Australia, where currently feral camels are considered invasive pests.

          1. Take your pick:

            1. Australia had less ecological competition. Camels don’t *like* living in a desert any more than humans do, they eat shrubs and trees in dry savannah like terrain by preference. In North America the first humans had not managed to wipe out all the larger herbivores, so there were still bison and antelopes. Horses had been wiped out, but reintroduced a couple of centuries before and were likewise wide spread. In turn this meant larger carnivores like wolves and pumas.

            In Australia the large herbivores had all been wiped out, and the medium to large carnivores. Life is good for a wild camel in Australia, only wild dogs to threaten the very young and only smaller kangaroos to push out of the way if you find some tasty vegetation.

            2. Luck. Camels were introduced to Australia when there was a real need for them. For the European settlers (indigenous natives weren’t included in their thinking) there was a lot of dry and desert land to explore and exploit, including gold mines. And this was just early enough in the 19th C for railways to still be expensive and rare. So lots of working domesticated camels, and if some went feral, nobody cared.

            The USA camel project mentioned above seems to me to have the misfortune of starting at a time when railways are becoming more common. And also the most famous name associated with the project is spectacularly unpopular a few years later.

          2. As observed, the project was part of the traitor, Jefferson Davis’s determination to have the Transcontinental Railroad built along a SOUTHERN route, which included the incredibly hostile terrain of the Southwest. Not only was it hostile due the gradients being even worse and more expensive to build by far, than blasting through the upper Rockies for geological reasons I’ll not try to go into here — but because of lack of water and fuel — and supply lines for the labor force. These railroads were steam engine powered, after all.

            Like Russians now, Germans earlier, for diect possession of various sea routes, Dixie was obsessed by and desperate to have direct, rapid transit to California, for access to CA’s gold, and to get their enslaved labor force there. (Though even the few who did manage to bring an enslaved labor force to California, found that labor force violently targeted and attacked by the free soil White labor force, to the point that mining by African Americans was not possible, foretelling future struggles to prevent African Americans to join labor unions and so forth, as well as the imminent struggle of the two conflicting economic systems between North and South.)

          3. I find this historical analysis deeply unconvincing, considering that the Gadsden Purchase, which happened in order to facilitate said southern transcontinental rail route, was completed after California came into the Union as a free state. For that matter, the camel experiment also happened after California came into the Union as a free state.

            I realize that it is now fashionable to attribute literally everything Southerners did pre-Civil War to SLAVERY!, and not without reason, but when the timeline doesn’t add up one begins to wonder about the motivations of the people doing the attributing.

    2. Oxen were popular in European armies by at least the 1870s in areas not served by railways (such as British colonial armies in hospitable terrain). As you note, speed is then slower than horse drawn wagons while off-road performance is obviously worse than mules.

    3. Yeah, oxen are slow as **** which is a big disadvantage for armies that have to get anywhere before warning of their coming gets out, they get outmaneuvered, or run out of food. But oxen do have the advantage that they can subsist almost completely on forage; most of the wagon trains in the American Old West were ox drawn for that reason. So oxen would excel in a non-combat supply role such as moving supplies to a forward fort or depot.

      1. Hard Tack and Coffee discussed how mules were used anywhere where they didn’t come within sound of gunfire, where you had to use pack horses.

  40. Hmm. What about the use of camels in deserts for transport? I think the Arabs are supposed to have used them extensively in the Middle East in the revolt against the Turks during World War One?

    1. IIRC, they are more efficient than horses. But they don’t like it wet. They were only usable where there was little water. And not many crops will grow, or people worth fighting over live, where there is no water.

    2. Richard Bulliet in his book The Camel and the wheel (ISBN: 9780231072359)argues that camels entirely replaced wheeled transport in much of the Middle East for many centuries. The lands of the chariot became the lands of the camel until the advent of railways and motor vehicles.

  41. > I am unsure if the presence of the elephant at right means we should understand this scene to take place in India and alas the museum description offers no clues.

    I think there’s also a pair of camels on the left of the big block, so that might be another clue of the scene taking place in India (or at least outside of Continental Europe)

  42. Pharsalia Book IX is an interestinf source for the issues of sourcing water during long marches. Cato (and his army) are marching through the desert, but even as they are dying of thirst, they never try to carry water with them while marching, instead constantly searching desperately for local springs. This greatly impedes their progress, but they have no other choice given the impossibility of marching while carrying enough water to sustain their army. The lack of local water sources made it (as you say) nearly impossible for the Roman army to proceed, and one could suggest that that logistical issue contributed to Cato’s ultimate defeat at Utica.

    1. (Cato’s army also faces some serious morale issues, which Cato conveniently solves by teaching his soldiers Stoicism. OK, maybe this isn’t such a good source for actual history…)

    2. The water problem is not one just of carrying capacity. It also has to have a flow rate sufficient to provide for large numbers, and access sufficient to be able to draw on that flow in a timely manner. A well, a small spring or even a small stream is often not enough.

      1. That’s especially a big problem if you’re trying to carry water with you. By ditching enough of your stuff you can carry water for a few days, probably, but then you have to have enough containers for that water (in a land with few people and few materials to make stuff from), and you have to have a source that provides your whole army with three days’ worth of drinking water in a single day.

  43. My understanding was that ancient china lacked a Roman-style road system because they made extensive use of one-wheeled wheelbarrows(with a big wheel under the center of mass and penetrating up through the carrying platform, leaving the user to balance the load across two carrying platforms on either side of the wheel, unlike modern western wheelbarrows, which have the wheel in front of the center of mass, which means that the user of a Chinese wheelbarrow doesn’t have to lift the wheelbarrow’s weight, just keep it balanced), and because these wheelbarrows didn’t need wide flat roads like a regular wagon did, they didn’t bother to make and pave such roads.
    I’ve also seen depictions of very thin Japanese wagons, which are dragged behind a person via poles over their shoulders/backpack straps attached to the poles, balanced on a single axle under the center mass, and are only slightly wider than the person dragging it, also being relatively tall, and coming up at least their shoulders in height.

    I suppose I’m driving towards: if feeding the soldiers to carry their own stuff is already a sunk cost, does giving them some kind of soldier-propelled wheeled luggage-carrier help at all with the wagon equation problems?
    Or are wagons expensive enough that an army couldn’t buy enough of these small ones to issue them to enough soldiers to make that much a difference, and instead they found that paying the additional wagon-pulling horse/mule costs for large wagons was worthwhile so long as they could avoid the carpentry costs of making and maintaining many small wagons?

    1. I’m not sure how big a consideration is was, but if you have each man pushing a wheelbarrow, it would be impossible to have them march in a proper formation, leaving the army vulnerable in the event of a surprise attack.

      1. It’s not just that they can’t march in formation, it’s that they’re spread farther apart, and if anyone’s wheelbarrow breaks down, it’s more of a disruption of the army’s overall marching. If I get a rock in my shoe, I just pull out of the line and the army keeps marching. If my wheelbarrow axle snaps or seizes up, I have to stop and get a couple of people to help me manhandle it off the road, with row after row of marching soldiers piling up behind us.

        Also, it probably makes getting troops moving after a halt harder, because everyone has to locate their personal wheelbarrow and make sure to get that one in particular. “Everybody remember where we parked” in a crowd of thousands.

      2. Even if the soldiers didn’t use them, I imagine the Chinese wheelbarrow could have been greatly appreciated by the non-combatants trailing the army, who usually had large burdens of supplies and equipment to haul.

  44. One of the few fantasy books to treat logistics as a serious issue is Donaldson”s “Mirror of her Dreams” duology. In the 2nd book the Congerie (mirror-based wizards, basically) keep the heroes’ army supplied on the march by transporting supplies, tents, etc. directly from the base depot (Royal Castle) to the field force (and back again) allowing a far faster rate of travel for the field force. The few wagons in the supply train carry the receiving mirrors and some wizards to operate them – which become a weak point the enemy tries to attack with mirror-launched raiders.

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